South Korean demonstrators burn anti-North placards at a protest marking former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's birthday, Feb. 16 in Seoul.Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
A United Nations panel released a report Monday saying that "unspeakable atrocities" and crimes against humanity have been committed in North Korea and that the U.N. will call for an international criminal investigation, the most serious attempt yet to probe evidence of grave and systematic rights violations in the authoritarian state.
"The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world," the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) said in a statement.
The 400-page report is the result of a yearlong investigation of North Korean authorities' alleged rights violations. It documents evidence of systematic torture and other atrocities committed in the country and its political prison camps, where 80,000 to 120,000 people are estimated to be held.
"These crimes against humanity entail extermination; murder; enslavement; torture; imprisonment; rape; forced abortions and other sexual violence; persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds; the forcible transfer of populations; the enforced disappearance of persons; and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation," the statement added.
Repression and famine claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the country in the 1990s.
North Korean defectors who have provided firsthand testimony of atrocities are deeply skeptical the report will have any effect on the regime in Pyongyang. The U.N. panel failed to gain access to the country and relied on camp survivors' horrific accounts at public hearings in Seoul, Washington, London and Tokyo.
A spokesman for North Korea's U.N. mission in New York who refused to give his name told The Associated Press, "We totally reject the unfounded findings of the Commission of Inquiry regarding crimes against humanity. We will never accept that."
In a two-page statement sent to Reuters from its diplomatic mission in Geneva, North Korea said the report was an "instrument of political plot" and "a product of politicization of human rights on the part of EU and Japan in alliance with the U.S. hostile policy."
"However, we will continue to strongly respond to the end to any attempt of regime change and pressure under the pretext of 'human rights protection,'" it said. "The DPRK (North Korea) once again makes it clear that the 'human rights violations' mentioned in the so-called 'report' do not exist in our country."
International condemnation immediately followed the report's release Monday.
Marie Harf, the U.S. State Department's deputy spokeswoman, said she strongly welcomed the report as an opportunity to continue "to raise awareness of and address the deplorable human rights conditions in the DPRK."
"The COI report reflects the international community's consensus view that the human rights situation in the DPRK is among the world's worst," she said in a news release. "We urge the DPRK to take concrete steps — as recommended by the COI — to improve the human rights situation for the North Korean people."
China, North Korea's key alley and protector, said Monday it would oppose any move at the U.N. to refer the North's leadership to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged crimes against humanity. China provides badly needed trade and aid for the isolated country, largely for fear that a collapse of the regime could allow the United States to bolster its presence in Asia.
"I myself haven't seen the report, but our relevant position is clear-cut on this. Issues concerning human rights should be solved through constructive dialogue on an equal footing," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing. "To submit this report to the ICC will not help resolve the human rights situation in one country," she said.
In September the panel's lead U.N. investigator, Michael Kirby, spoke of "unspeakable atrocities" in North Korea's political prison camps, citing survivors who saw babies drowned, had relatives killed before their eyes, lived on vermin and caught snakes and mice to feed malnourished babies.
At the time, North Korean diplomat Kim Yong Ho denied the allegations, telling the U.N. Human Rights Council the evidence had been "fabricated" by "forces hostile" to his country, singling out the United States, Japan and the European Union.