North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un visits a Korean People's Army fishery station in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang November 19, 2014. (Kcna/Reuters)

WHEN THE final days come around for the ruling family dynasty in North Korea — and it is not unreasonable to expect that such an isolated and paranoid regime, presiding over a desperate populace, will eventually collapse — a major task will be to document and discover the depths of its human rights abuses. Research completed in the past two years suggests those abuses were and are horrific, including four large camps holding between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners.

Eventually this question also will be asked: Who knew, and what did they do about it? A United Nations committee provided one valuable answer Tuesday by voting to recommend that the Security Council refer to the International Criminal Court evidence that North Korea’s leaders have committed crimes against humanity. The vote on the resolution, sponsored by the European Union and Japan, was 111 nations in favor, including the United States, and 19 opposed, with 55 abstentions. Voting “no” were Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Venezuela .

Now the Security Council must take up the matter. Russia and China have threatened a veto. Fine; let them go on the record, for the world and for history, if that is their choice. Given the extraordinary ruthlessness of a regime that carries out extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, rape and forced starvation against its own people, where do they stand? On the side of those carrying out the atrocities, or on the side of human dignity?

It is remarkable that the United Nations case against North Korea has come this far; much credit goes to Australian jurist Michael Kirby and others who served with him on the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, which investigated the atrocities. North Korea would not allow them inside the country. Yet their report, issued in February, has proved so potent and well-documented that it has driven the debate beyond the usual windy speeches. Mr. Kirby’s commission, which took extensive testimony from defectors and others, concluded that not only prison guards but also North Korean rulers, including leader Kim Jong Un, are responsible for crimes against humanity. “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” the commission found.

North Korea’s leaders have reacted nervously to the prospect of prosecution, attempting to avert action by releasing captured Americans — and by threatening a new nuclear weapons test. They also have frantically sought to discredit defector Shin Dong-hyuk, who has been at the forefront of calling attention to the brutality of the North Korean gulag.

When the gates to the concentration camps are opened in North Korea, who will be able to say: We knew, and we did something about it? Now it is up to the U.N. Security Council.