GENEVA The United Nations' human rights investigator for North Korea called on Monday for its leader Kim Jong Un and senior officials to be prosecuted for committing crimes against humanity.
Marzuki Darusman told the U.N. Human Rights Council that North Korea was devoting huge resources to developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction while many of its citizens went hungry and others worked in "slave-like conditions".
"We are closing in on the North Koreans, and the nature of the regime is such that with total, complete control of the system nothing happens anywhere in that country without the say-so of the highest, supreme leader, chairman of that country, Mr Kim Jong-un," Darusman told a news briefing.
Political prison camps, torture, "slave-like labor" and religious persecution remain features of the state apparatus, two years after a landmark U.N. investigation into crimes against humanity, Darusman said.
The delegation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) boycotted the session. Japan, South Korea, the European Union and the United States supported Darusman's call for accountability, although they did not refer to Kim by name.
The U.S. envoy on North Korea, Robert King, said the United States would work with other countries to help ensure that those responsible for rights abuses were brought to account.
"But I think we need to be careful not to start at the top. Because if you start at the top, that's where you stop," King told Reuters in an interview.
The U.S. envoy also voiced concern about North Korea's investment in nuclear weapons, but said there were signs that fresh U.N. sanctions were starting to hurt Pyongyang.
China, Pyongyang's ally, took a more conciliatory tone, saying human rights issues should not be politicized and calling for a comprehensive approach to dealing with North Korea.
Beijing also rejected Darusman's findings that North Koreans who fled across the border to China were being forced back to their homeland illegally.
Darusman, a former foreign minister of Indonesia, said that investigations could be pursued via the International Criminal Court (ICC) but, failing any consensus among major powers, North Korea's leadership could be prosecuted in a third country.
He called for the Council to set up a panel of three experts to look into "structure and methods of accountability".
"It may not be a full prosecutorial entity but lays down the initial prosecution process," Darusman told Reuters.
North Korea Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, in a speech to the Geneva forum on March 1, said it would boycott any session that examined its record and would "never, ever" be bound by any resolutions.
North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January and launched a long-range missile the following month.
"The country is pouring a large amount of resources into developing weapons of mass destruction, while large parts of its population continue to suffer from food insecurity," Darusman said.
John Fisher of Human Rights Watch said that North Korea had "horrific" forced labor camps, public executions and a history of "mass starvation".
"Generations of North Koreans have suffered at the hands of the Kim family and its elite," Fisher said.
(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Marina Depetris; Editing by Gareth Jones)