WASHINGTON — A U.N. Commission of Inquiry has found that crimes against humanity have been committed in North Korea and recommends that its findings be referred to the International Criminal Court, two people familiar with the commission's report have told The Associated Press.
The commission, which conducted a yearlong investigation, has found evidence of an array of such crimes, including "extermination," crimes against humanity against starving populations and a widespread campaign of abductions of individuals in South Korea and Japan.
Its report, due for release Monday, does not examine in detail individual responsibility for the alleged crimes but recommends steps toward accountability.
An outline of the conclusions was provided to AP by an individual familiar with its contents who was not authorized to divulge the information before its formal release and who spoke on condition of anonymity. A U.S. official, speaking anonymously for the same reason, confirmed those conclusions.
The three-member commission, led by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, was set up by the U.N.'s top human rights body last March in the most serious international attempt yet to probe evidence of systematic and grave rights violations in the reclusive, authoritarian state, which is notorious for its political prisons camps, repression and famine that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the 1990s.
The lengthy report concludes that the testimony and other information it received, "create reasonable grounds ... to merit a criminal investigation by a competent national or international organ of justice."
A spokesman for North Korea's U.N. Mission in New York who refused to give his name told the AP: "We totally reject the unfounded findings of the Commission of Inquiry regarding crimes against humanity. We will never accept that."
The commission, which conducted public hearings with more than 80 victims and other witnesses in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington but was not allowed into North Korea itself, recommends that the U.N. Security Council refer its findings to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
That appears unlikely to happen, given expected opposition among permanent council members that have veto power, such as China, to prevent such a step. Other than the diplomatic obstacles toward the court taking up the case is the fact that its jurisdiction does not extend to crimes committed before 2003, when its statute came into force.
But the commission also recommends that the U.N. General Assembly and the Human Rights Council should extend the mandate of special human rights monitoring of North Korea, and it proposes the Geneva-based council establish a "structure" to help ensure accountability, in particular regarding crimes against humanity, that would build on evidence and documentation the commission has compiled.
It says the work of that structure should "facilitate United Nations efforts to prosecute or otherwise render accountable, those most responsible for crimes against humanity."
The commission will formally present its findings to the Human Rights Council on March 17.
Rendering justice still appears a distant prospect. North Korea's hereditary regime has shrugged off years of continuous outside pressure, including tough U.N. and U.S. sanctions directed at its nuclear and missile programs. But the commission's findings will at the least intensify international scrutiny on its rights record and open avenues for further action.
Last October, Kirby told the U.N. General Assembly that when the commission delivers its final report, "the international community will be obliged to face its responsibilities and decide what concrete action it will take" to protect the North Korean people.
Testimony by North Korean defectors at U.N. hearings held last year produced chilling accounts of systematic rape, murder and torture, and suffering during the famine of the late 1990s. The commission says it plans to release on Monday, along with the report, a 372-page document with excerpts of witness testimony and individual cases.
Among the crimes allegedly committed, the report lists murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortion, sexual violence, forcible transfers and forced disappearances, and persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds. It also cites the overall system of political repression, the "songbun" class system that discriminates against North Koreans on the basis of their family's perceived loyalty to the regime, and executions and punishment through forced labor in the North's gulag.
Other than speaking to defectors, the commission heard from experts about North Korea's network of camps, estimated to hold 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, and about access to food in the country, where many children suffer stunted growth because of malnutrition. Among its lines of inquiry were the causes of the 1990s famine and to what extent it was due to natural disasters — as the authoritarian regime of then-leader Kim Jong Il claimed — or to mismanagement.
The report identifies crimes against humanity committed through "decisions and policies taken for the purposes of sustaining the present political system, in full awareness that such decisions would exacerbate starvation and related deaths amongst much of the population."
When the Human Rights Council authorized the formation of the commission last March, the North denounced the move as politically motivated by "hostile forces" trying to discredit it and change its socialist system.
The other two members of the commission are Sonja Biserko, a Serbian human rights expert, and Marzuki Darusman, a senior Indonesian jurist who has also served as the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea since 2010.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.