The United Nations appeared to move a step closer on Thursday to holding North Korea’s government accountable for what an investigative panel has called a history of crimes against humanity and egregious human rights abuses, as the Security Council convened a special session to hear the panel’s views on what should be done.
It was the first time that the Security Council had taken up the question of human rights in North Korea, the world’s most isolated country, which is already under heavy international sanctions because of its nuclear weapons and missile activities.
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 encouraged nonetheless.
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 Criminal Court.
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 justice.”
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.”
An article on Friday about a United Nations Security Council hearing on an investigative commission’s findings of crimes against humanity and other abuses in North Korea referred incorrectly to Lee Hyeon-seo, one of the North Korean witnesses who spoke at the session. Ms. Lee is a refugee who escaped from North Korea and is now a rights activist based in South Korea; she was never incarcerated in North Korea’s penal system.