A UN investigation into allegations of execution, slavery, and mass imprisonment in North Korea may result in charges being filed against Pyongyang at the International Criminal Court. But the regime remains defiant.
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry released its damning report into North Korea's human rights record on Monday, February 17, with governments and human rights activists around the world applauding the panel's findings.
South Korea was quick to hail the investigation results, pledging to strengthen its cooperation with the international community to improve the conditions of the people of the North, while Japan similarly praised the findings outlined in the 372-page report.
The chair of the three-strong panel, Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge, admitted that he had been "moved to tears" after listening to the testimony of one of the few people to escape the regime and find sanctuary in South Korea. More than 80 witnesses gave evidence in hearings in Seoul, Washington, London and Tokyo, including former prisoners and prison guards who had defected.
Murder, torture, enslavement
The UN team's report detailed multiple alleged cases of murder, torture, rape used as an instrument of torture, abductions, enslavement, starvation and other abuses. The North Korean regime "does not have any parallel in the contemporary world," Kirby stated in the final document, adding that many of its excesses reminded him of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in Germany and Cambodia under Pol Pot.
North Korea refused to permit the UN team to enter the country to conduct its investigation - and denounced its members as "human scum" - but Kirby sent a copy of the report to the leadership in Pyongyang before it was officially released.
Remarkably, Kirby also warned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (main picture) in a personal letter that he and the senior members of his regime could one day face prosecution for their actions.
"I think this report is going to change history," Ken Kato, director of Human Rights in Asia and a member of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea, told DW.
Crimes against humanity
"The UN has now demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that Pyongyang is carrying out systematic crimes against humanity and - even more powerfully - the reports says it is the responsibility of the international community to put a stop to this situation," he said.
"The regime was short on legitimacy before this report; it has absolutely none now," said Kato, who was even optimistic that China might be convinced to side with the rest of the world against its North Korean ally, given the depth of feeling the report has generated.
"I think this report is so significant that it will force China to act," he said. "It even points out that North Korean agents are abducting people inside China and taking them over the border - which has to be an embarrassment to Chinese authorities."
China opposes legal action
According to media reports, China rejected what it said was "unreasonable criticism" of Beijing but it refrained from commenting on whether it would veto any proceedings in the UN Security Council to bring Pyongyang to justice.
Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and an authority on North Korean affairs, agrees that the report has caused a huge loss of face in both North Korea and its key ally China, but he fears that Beijing will strongly oppose plans to have a legal case against the North Korean leadership filed at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
"China is undoubtedly angry with North Korea about these issues and it has demonstrated its anger by refusing to allow Kim to pay a state visit to China during the more than two years he has ruled from Pyongyang," professor Shigemura said. "But they want to retain the status quo, so they will strongly oppose any move to take the case to the ICC."
One possible reaction from the North might be a "provocation" aimed at South Korea or the US presence in the Asia-Pacific region, he said, although it is not thought that Pyongyang will go as far as to carry out a fourth underground nuclear test or test-fire another intercontinental ballistic missile.
Anger in Pyongyang
Pyongyang was swift to "categorically and totally" reject the findings of the report. In a statement sent to Reuters from the North Korean diplomatic mission in Geneva, Pyongyang dismissed the findings as a "political plot" and "a product of politicization of human rights on the part of the EU and Japan, in alliance with the US hostile policy."
North Korea would "strongly respond" to any attempt to bring about regime-change in the North, it said, and reiterated that it had no charges to answer. "The DPRK once again makes it clear that the 'human rights violations' mentioned in the so-called 'report' do not exist in our country."
Kim Myong-chol, executive director of The Centre for North Korea-US Peace and a mouthpiece for the regime in Pyongyang, told DW that the feeling in North Korea is one of "pure anger."
"We totally dismiss this report," he said. "This is merely an attempt by the US to discredit North Korea and to serve as a pretext for an invasion of our country. But that will end in failure.
"There is deep anger in North Korea," he added. "We will watch closely the reactions of the US and other countries from now on and we cannot yet rule out a military response."