The UN Security Council held an unprecedented hearing Monday on the human rights situation in North Korea that saw several countries encourage referral of the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Eleven member states — including the US — overcame an official protest by China over the inclusion of the session on the Council's agenda. China said the Security Council was "not the forum to get involved in human rights issues," and later said they would oppose the adoption of any outcome document to emerge from the body. China was joined in voting against the move by Russia. Chad and Nigeria abstained.
The meeting capped a year of building pressure against the reclusive country, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). In February, a UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry found "systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations," that resulted from "policies established at the highest level" of the North Korean government. According to the Commission, as many as 120,000 North Korean citizens are imprisoned in labor camps.
Last week, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution urging the Security Council to consider referral to the ICC.
Hours after reports first emerged Monday of a complete internet outage in North Korea, US ambassador Samantha Power openly accused the DPRK government being complicit in a cyber attack on Sony Pictures prior to the company's planned release of The Interview, a movie that depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
"Not content with denying freedom of expression to its people, the North Korean regime now seems intent on suppressing the exercise of this fundamental freedom in our nation," Power said.
Power read several passages from the Commission of Inquiry's report. The excerpts included testimony from former detainees that described picking kernels of corn from cattle dung, and a woman whose newborn baby was cooked by prison guards and fed to their dogs.
Despite what many in the international community consider to be an open and shut case of systematic human rights abuse, it has been difficult for critics of the DPRK to take action against the country.
"Three years ago I was told there would never be a UN Security Council discussion of DPRK and human rights," Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, told VICE News as the meeting adjourned. "Today is historic, but it's a small step. Accountability is much harder."
In a brief speech, Russia joined China in arguing that the Security Council was not an appropriate venue to discuss North Korea's human rights record.
China also attempted to allay concerns about the DPRK's steady stream of threats to vaporize other countries. Chinese officials said they have control over the Korean peninsula — including, it seemed, over South Korea.
Chinese ambassador Liu Jieyi said his country would "never allow turbulence or war" on the Korean Peninsula.
At previous hearings this year, DPRK officials openly and enthusiastically lambasted any and all inquiries into its human rights records and accused the US of working to overthrow its leadership. The North Koreans did not appear at Monday's session. They did, however, send a letter to the Council expressing their displeasure.
Earlier this month, the DPRK said the Council risked running a "double standard" if it did not also consider the issue of CIA torture, which was detailed in a recent US Senate report. The Council has no plans to consider a US torture investigation.
Despite encouragement from several Council members — including the US and Australia — an ICC referral for North Korea is unlikely given China's veto power. Still, the session was the first time the Council has taken up the DPRK's human rights record, and it signaled a symbolic shift in the world's gaze toward the country.
In a highly emotional — and at times off-the-cuff — speech, South Korean UN ambassador Oh Joon said it was difficult for him to read the accounts included in the Commission of Inquiry "without it breaking our hearts."
Joon, who has worked to get the DPRK on the Council's agenda, noted that his appearance Monday would likely be his last before the body's rotating membership turns over in January.
"We cannot listen to stories of North Korean defectors without sharing in their tears," said Joon, looking up at Council members, including the Chinese ambassador, "without feeling as if we are there with them experience the tragedies."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford