UNITED NATIONS, United States - The United States on Monday slammed North Korea as a "living nightmare" for its citizens at the first-ever UN Security Council meeting on Pyongyang's dismal rights record, held despite opposition from China.
The unprecedented talks at the 15-member council opened after China, Pyongyang's ally, failed to block the meeting, which convened even as North Korea faces US accusations of staging a cyber attack on a Hollywood Studio.
US envoy Samantha Power said a UN commission of inquiry that compiled testimonies from North Korean exiles exposed the Pyongyang regime's brutality.
"They show North Korea for what it is: a living nightmare," she said.
Power recalled testimony from a starving prison camp survivor who picked kernels of corn from cattle dung to eat and of a former guard who said prison wardens routinely raped prisoners.
The UN General Assembly put the international spotlight on North Korea when it adopted a landmark resolution last week urging the Security Council to consider referring Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court.
Approved by a resounding majority, the resolution drew heavily from the UN inquiry report released in February that detailed a vast network of prison camps holding up to 120,000 people, along with cases of torture, summary executions and rape.
The inquiry concluded that North Korea was committing human rights violations "without parallel in the contemporary world," and that these were ordered by the highest level of the state.
North Korea 'charge sheet'
"Rarely has such an extensive charge sheet of international crimes been brought to the council's attention," UN assistant secretary-general for human rights Ivan Simonovic told the council.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant called the report a "wake-up call" to the world about the appalling situation in North Korea and said Pyongyang should "listen and engage" to address rights concerns.
No decision was taken on Monday on the call to refer North Korea to the ICC for crimes against humanity, but the United States, Britain, Australia, France among others said the council should consider taking action.
"By placing North Korea's appalling human rights record on its agenda, the Council can now at any point take the next step of referring these crimes against humanity to the ICC," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
The meeting opened with China raising objections, triggering a procedural raised-hand vote in which 11 of the 15 council members supported putting North Korea on the agenda.
China and Russia voted against while Chad and Nigeria abstained.
Chinese Ambassador Liu Jieyi said de-nuclearization, encouraging dialogue and maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula were the shared priorities of the global community.
"Getting involved in the human rights situation will go against the above goals and can only bring harm instead of benefits," said Liu.
Until now, the top UN body has focused on North Korea's nuclear programme as a security threat, and has imposed sanctions on Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic tests.
Under UN procedures, North Korea had the right to attend the council meeting and voice its views, but it decided to stay away.
South Korea's Ambassador Oh Joon made an emotional address, telling council members that North Koreans were not "just anybody" for his countrymen and that accounts of rights abuses were "breaking our hearts."
Seoul's envoy said referring North Korea to the ICC was one option on the table, but that council should also seek to promote dialogue with Pyongyang to address rights concerns.
Power accused North Korea of carrying out a cyber attack on Sony Pictures that exposed embarrassing emails and scuttled the release of "The Interview," a movie about a fictional plot to kill leader Kim Jong-Un.
North Korea's offer to conduct a joint investigation of the hack attack with the United States was "absurd", she said.