TOKYO — A U.N. General Assembly committee has approved a resolution condemning the North Korean leadership for decades of crimes against humanity, paving the way for Kim Jong Un and his cadres to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
The action constitutes a historic step by the United Nations and has spooked North Korea, which usually dismisses U.N. resolutions as an American conspiracy but now appears to be worried that Kim will be held to account.
The nonbinding resolution, led by the European Union and Japan, passed 111 to 19. Fifty-five countries abstained.
“The horrifying testimonies of human rights violations in this country are not fabricated and cannot leave us indifferent,” E.U. diplomats told the committee in a statement before Tuesday’s vote. “The international community cannot ignore the suffering of the ordinary people of [North] Korea, it must take action.”
The resolution will now be put on the Security Council’s agenda, with the focus turning to stopping China and Russia — North Korea’s main allies — from vetoing the referral.
“No Security Council country, including China, can deny the horror endured by so many North Koreans,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Decades of impunity have only reinforced North Korea’s unparalleled repression. The time has come for justice.”
The move toward referring North Korea to the ICC stems from a groundbreaking 372-page report released this year by a U.N. commission of inquiry that detailed a litany of alleged human rights abuses, including brainwashing, torture, deliberate starvation, executions and infanticide.
The report spurred into action countries that had long put human rights second to dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Before the committee voted Tuesday, North Korea warned that it might retaliate with further nuclear tests.
Trying to punish it over human rights “is compelling us not to refrain any further from conducting nuclear tests,” said Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean foreign-ministry adviser for U.N. and human rights issues, according to the Associated Press.
Choe also accused the E.U. and Japan of “subservience and sycophancy” to the United States, and he promised “unpredictable and serious consequences” if the resolution goes forward.
Pyongyang has gone to great lengths to try to neutralize the report, using a mixture of charm offensive and bluster.
In a sudden move, it recently released all three Americans it had been detaining in the country, and it has been trying to cut a deal with a U.N. special rapporteur that would grant him access to the country in exchange for the ICC referral being dropped.
A top North Korean official and close adviser to Kim, Choe Ryong Hae, is now in Moscow on a visit that is thought to be partly aimed at lobbying Russia to veto the resolution.
On the bluster side, Pyongyang last month released a video titled “Lie and Truth,” attacking Shin Dong-hyuk, who has become one of the most prominent critics of North Korea. Born in a prison camp, he lived a life of starvation, hard labor and torture until he escaped at age 22. In the video, a man identified as Shin’s father urges Shin to “come to your senses and return to the embrace of the [Workers’] Party.”
This attack strategy is likely to become the dominant response, said Victor Cha, a former George W. Bush administration negotiator with North Korea.
“North Korea is likely to respond negatively to the resolution and the failure of their smile offensive in the past few weeks to deflect human rights criticism,” he said.