The UN Security Council formally set North Korea's dismal human rights situation as a standalone item on its agenda for the first time Monday in a landmark vote that heralds a shift in its military-focused discourse and may pave the way to bringing perpetrators to justice.
In the rare procedural vote, 11 countries supported the issue's inclusion, including the US, UK, France and South Korea. China and Russia, North Korea's only major allies, voted against it, while Nigeria and Chad abstained. This means that the issue now can be brought up at any time.
The organisation's top governing body last held the poll in 2006 over Myanmar's human rights record.
Seoul and Washington welcomed the effort, urging the Kim Jong-un regime to accept international calls for freedom and better living conditions for its people.
North Korea was absent, refusing to recognise the gathering.
"The Security Council's move attests to concerns that serious human rights situations in North Korea have a grave impact on peace in Northeast Asia and the world," South Korea's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"We look forward to in-depth discussions at the council for the improvement of North Korean human rights including the accountability issues recommended by a General Assembly resolution."
The US Department of State's deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said, "Today's Security Council meeting is a historic one. … It will ensure continued Council attention to the human rights situation moving forward and demonstrates, really, the concern of the international community."
The decision set a milestone in the global discussions on North Korea, which had centred on its nuclear and missile programs and other military activities until a UN Commission of Inquiry unveiled a comprehensive report in February detailing "systematic, widespread and gross" rights breaches in the reclusive country.
Building on the paper, a UN panel and then the General Assembly have since adopted a resolution calling for the situation to be referred to the International Criminal Court. Ten members of the 15-nation body early this month requested Council President Mahamat Zene Cherif of Chad to add the issue to its agenda.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is aiming to launch a field office in downtown Seoul by March to monitor and study the situation across the border, a Seoul official said.
"The meeting has significance in laying the procedural and institutional foundation for further discussions at the council," the official told reporters, adding that during the session several countries including the US, UK, France, Australia and Luxembourg raised the need to examine ways for an ICC referral.
With the vote, Pyongyang is expected to ramp up its verbal attacks on Seoul and Washington as it deems their criticism over rights issues to be an attempt to overthrow the regime.
Tension is escalating in the wake of North Korea's alleged hack on Sony Pictures, which culminated in the cancellation of the release of "The Interview," a film with a plot to assassinate the young leader.
US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power blasted North Korea's human rights situation at the meeting as a "living nightmare," calling Pyongyang's demand for a joint probe into the incident and threats of retaliation "absurd."