WASHINGTON -- A U.N. panel has found that crimes against humanity have been committed in North Korea and will call for an international criminal investigation, The Associated Press has learned.
The report, to be released Monday, is the most authoritative account yet of rights violations by North Korean authorities, and it is bound to infuriate the country's unpredictable leader. But justice remains a distant prospect, not least as North Korea's ally, China, would be likely to block any referral to the International Criminal Court.
The commission, which conducted a yearlong investigation, has found evidence of an array of crimes, including "extermination," crimes against humanity against starving populations and a widespread campaign of abductions of individuals in South Korea and Japan.
Its report does not examine in detail individual responsibility for crimes but recommends steps toward accountability. It could also build international pressure on North Korea, whose dire rights record has drawn less censure at the U.N. than its nuclear and missile programs have. North Korea's hereditary regime has shrugged off years of continuous outside pressure, including tough U.N. and U.S. sanctions directed at its weapons programs.
An outline of the report's conclusions was provided to the 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 the main 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 report concludes that the testimony and 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."
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. It examined 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 commission last March, the North denounced it 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.