GENEVA — A U.N. panel warned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Monday that he may be held accountable for orchestrating widespread crimes against civilians in the secretive Asian nation, ranging from systematic executions to torture, rape and mass starvation.
It is unusual for a U.N. report to directly implicate a nation’s leader. But in a letter accompanying a yearlong investigative report, the chairman of a three-member U.N. commission of inquiry, retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, directly warned Kim that international prosecution is needed “to render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for crimes against humanity.”
“Even without being directly involved in crimes against humanity, a military commander may be held responsible for crimes against humanity committed by forces under the commander’s effective command and control,” Kirby wrote.
He urged Kim to take “all necessary and reasonable measures” to stop crimes against humanity and insure that they are properly investigated and prosecuted. Kirby added, however, there was no indication the North Korea would do so.
The commission’s 372-page report is a wide-ranging indictment of North Korea for policies including political prison camps with 80,000 to 120,000 people, state-sponsored abductions of North Korean, Japanese and other nationals, and lifelong indoctrination.
“They are wrongs that shock the conscience of humanity,” Kirby said, comparing them to Nazi atrocities.
Speaking to reporters after the release of the report, Kirby said it was impossible not to include Kim’s name in the list of suspects because of what he described as the government’s totalitarian nature.
Kirby referred to prison camps, which North Korea says do not exist. “However, the satellite images show the prison camps and we had testimony, which is quoted in the report, which tells the stories of the prison camps” that include starvation and stunted growth in babies, he said.
North Korean officials did not cooperate with the panel’s investigation, saying in correspondence last year that the country “totally and categorically rejects” the probe ordered by the U.N.’s 47-nation Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva.
The commission’s three members — which also include Sonja Biserko of Serbia and Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia — said the findings are based on testimony from 80 witnesses at four public hearings in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington last year plus more than 240 confidential interviews with victims and others.
North Korea is unlikely to face prosecution because China, one of five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, generally opposes such referrals to the International Criminal Court.
“Too many times in this building there are reports and no action,” Kirby said of the United Nations. “Well, now is a time for action. We can’t say we didn’t know.”
Before the report’s release, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said her country’s position was “very clear.”
“We think we should establish a constructive dialogue to solve the disputes over the human rights issues based on equal footing and mutual respect,” Hua told reporters in Beijing. “It will not help the situation to bring the issue to an international court.”
Kirby also wrote to China’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva saying there’s evidence that Chinese officials have in some cases shared with North Korean officials “information about the contacts and conduct” of North Korean nationals subject to repatriation.
The ambassador, Wu Haitao, responded by denying that repatriated North Korean citizens from China face torture in North Korea.
U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the report showed that North Korea’s human rights situation “is among the world’s worst.”
The report will create pressure for release of the remaining Japanese, South Korean and other abductees still in North Korea, U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Monday in Tokyo.
“I think together the United States and Japan will work to guarantee the return of the abductees to their families and to their homes,” Royce told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has worked on the abduction issue for more than a decade.
Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.