GENEVA — A United Nations panel has served notice to Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, that he may be personally held liable in court for crimes against humanity committed by state institutions and officials under his direct control.
A letter conveying this notice forms part of a report by the panel to the UN Human Rights Council, released on Monday after a yearlong investigation.
The report is viewed by rights activists not only as the most detailed and authoritative body of data on the state of human rights in North Korea but also as a milestone in the international debate on that country, one of the world’s most reclusive and isolated.
In the letter, dated Jan. 20, the panel chairman, the retired Australian judge Michael Donald Kirby, summarized the investigation’s findings of crimes against humanity committed by officials that could be inferred to be acting under Kim’s personal control.
Addressing Kim, 31, Kirby wrote in the letter that his panel would recommend that the UN Security Council refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court, to make all those responsible for crimes accountable, “including possibly yourself.”
“I hope that the international community will be moved by the detail, the amount, the long duration, the great suffering, and the many tears that have existed in North Korea to act on the crimes against humanity,” Kirby said on Monday, speaking to reporters in the UN’s Geneva offices.
“Too many times in this building there are reports and no action,” Kirby said. “Well, now is a time for action. We can’t say we didn’t know.”
North Korea denounced the report, and the entire process leading up to it, as a fabricated concoction of lies and deceits by North Korea’s enemies, including South Korea and the United States.
A statement from the North Korean Mission in Geneva said that such rights violations “do not exist in our country,” and that the findings were ‘‘an instrument of a political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system.”
The North Korean authorities repeatedly denied the panel’s request for permission to visit the country to investigate abuses. The report relied heavily on testimony from North Korean refugees, escapees, and asylum seekers.
The panel’s report details what it describes as a wide range of crimes against humanity. The report also criticizes the political and security apparatus of the North Korean state, asserting that it used surveillance, fear, public executions, and enforced disappearances “to terrorize the population into submission.”
“Systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions, and officials,” the report asserted, referring to North Korea by its official name.
The report stopped short of alleging genocide but specified among others the crimes of “extermination,” murder, enslavement, torture, rape, and persecution on grounds of race, religion, and gender.
The report also reported in detail on the abduction of foreign citizens, notably from Japan and South Korea, observing “these international forced disappearances are unique in their intensity, scale, and nature.”
In many instances the abuses constitute crimes against humanity, the report asserted, adding “these are not mere excesses of the state; they are essential components,” and have been committed “pursuant to policies at the highest level of the state.”
The UN 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.
Human rights activists had pushed for the creation of the panel in a bid to broaden what had been the international community’s focus on North Korea’s nuclear program and bellicose security policies to the near exclusion of its human rights record.
North Korea’s practice of what the report called “crimes that shock the conscience of humanity” for decades “raises questions about the inadequacy of the international community.”
“It really opens up a whole new chapter in the international reaction to North Korea,” Lee Jung-hoon, South Korea’s ambassador for human rights, said. “It’s not just an investigation and a report and that’s the end of it. It’s giving a road map and blueprint to end this thing. There’s a very strong sense of urgency.”
There appears to be little immediate prospect of winning approval for International Criminal Court prosecution, however. Approval is necessary from the Security Council’s permanent members, which include North Korea’s longtime protector, China.
Still, Lee said, “just the fact that they are getting the vocabulary of crimes against humanity, the International Criminal Court, and Kim Jong Un on the same page is a huge step forward in the debate on North Korean human rights.”
The panel also listed some other possible options for prosecution, including the formation of an ad hoc tribunal such as those convened to investigate crimes in the Balkans and Rwanda. It also called for the Human Rights Council to establish a structure to maintain the collection of evidence of human rights violations.
“The UN has been more or less indifferent about these issues for six decades. The panel [is] trying to jump-start the reaction of the international community,” said Julie de Rivero, Geneva representative of Human Rights Watch.