Diplomats and rights activists who were invited to
attend the session, which was closed to the news media, said they
believed at least 10 of the 13 Council members who attended would be
inclined to refer North Korean leaders to the International Criminal
Court at The Hague for prosecution — and at the least, to debate
such a decision. China and Russia, veto-wielding members of the
Council, did not attend, but rights advocates said they were
The Security Council session came two months after
the United Nations investigative panel, a three-member commission
led by a retired Australian judge, Michael D. Kirby, issued a
damning report about what it described as North Korea’s vast system
of slave-like prison camps and other forms of state-sanctioned
torture, intimidation and repression.
The commission’s findings, after a yearlong
inquiry in which thousands of North Korean refugees and others were
interviewed outside the country, led the United Nations Human Rights
Council in Geneva last month to recommend some form of criminal
accountability for North Korean leaders. Judge Kirby’s panel was not
permitted to enter North Korea.
Unlike the Human Rights Council, the Security
Council has the power to refer countries to the International
Judge Kirby, an outspoken jurist, told Security
Council members that “accountability is not optional” in the case of
North Korea, where he said the abuses “exceed all others in
duration, intensity and horror,” according to an account of his
remarks provided by rights advocates invited to attend the session.
Judge Kirby also spoke later at a news conference
outside the Security Council’s chambers.
“Enough is enough,” Judge Kirby told reporters.
“The time has come for the international community to insist on
action.” Based on the questions the panelists fielded at the
session, he said, “the only real question I detected was what that
action should exactly be and when it should be taken.”
He estimated that 80,000 to 120,000 North Koreans
toil in the country’s prison camps, underfed and overworked, many of
them held without any form of due process. “If ever there is to be a
case for referral of a matter to the International Criminal Court,
it is difficult to imagine a stronger case than has been laid out in
the case of North Korea,” he said.
North Korea’s representatives at the United
Nations did not respond to an invitation to attend the session,
which also heard testimony from two North Korean escapees, Shin
Dong-hyuk and Lee Hyeon-seo. Mr. Shin, whose prison life was
chronicled in a best-selling 2012 book, “Escape From Camp 14,”
recalled some of his experience to Council members, including how he
witnessed the execution of his mother and sister and how guards gave
inmates a choice when they were punished: no food or a beating. He
said he chose a beating because hunger was worse.
North Korea has previously denounced Judge Kirby’s
panel and the Human Rights Council, asserting that accounts of its
prison conditions are the fabrications of enemies, most notably
South Korea and the United States.
Rights activists said the diplomats from 10
Council members — the United States, Britain, Luxembourg, Chile,
Rwanda, France, Australia, Lithuania, Argentina and South Korea —
all suggested, to varying degrees, that they were receptive to
discussing the idea of a referral to the International Criminal
Court, with the strongest views expressed by France and Chile.
Jordan’s representative expressed concern but was noncommittal. The
only members among the 13 present who did not speak were from Chad
and Nigeria. A majority of nine is needed for a referral.
Samantha Power, the United States ambassador, said
in a statement issued later that Judge Kirby’s panel had presented a
“chilling picture of the regime’s systematic and remorseless
repression of its citizens,” and that the commission’s findings
“deserve the full attention — and action — of the Security Council
and all members of the U.N.”
John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director at Human
Rights Watch, who was invited to the session, said in a statement
that he was encouraged. “Today’s meeting is a beginning, not an
end,” he said. Even if a veto threat exists, he said: “It will be
necessary to put the matter to a vote. Nations should stand up and
be counted, to determine which nations stand with famine, gulags and
totalitarianism, and which stand on the side of human rights and
Judge Kirby declined to speculate on what would
happen if either China or Russia exercised its veto powers to thwart
a referral. “That’s a little bit down the track,” he said. “I think
one should not be too impatient.”
Correction: April 19, 2014
An earlier version of this article referred
incorrectly to Lee Hyeon-seo. She is a refugee from North Korea who
escaped and is now a rights activist based in South Korea; she was
never incarcerated in North Korea’s penal system.