UNITED NATIONS, United States - The UN General Assembly on Thursday called for North Korea to be referred to the International Criminal Court over its dismal rights record, in a landmark resolution adopted by a strong majority.
The non-binding measure approved by a vote of 116 to 20 with 53 abstentions was hailed as a clear message about growing international concern over human rights violations in the reclusive communist country.
The resolution asks the Security Council to refer North Korea to the ICC and to consider targeted sanctions against the Pyongyang leadership for the repression of its citizens.
On Monday, the Security Council will discuss North Korea in its first-ever meeting to touch on the rights situation in the country, but no decision is expected on ICC referral during those talks.
Ten of the 15 council members pushed for the meeting on North Korea on Monday, overcoming strong objections from Russia and China which argued that the matter should be before the UN Human Rights Council and not the Security Council.
It remains an open question whether the Security Council will seek to refer North Korea to the ICC, with China -- Pyongyang's main ally -- and Russia widely expected to oppose such a move.
Co-sponsored by 62 countries, the resolution draws heavily on the work of a UN inquiry that concluded in a report released in February that North Korea was committing human rights abuses "without parallel in the contemporary world."
The year-long inquiry heard testimony from North Korean exiles and documented a vast network of harsh prison camps holding up to 120,000 people along with cases of torture, summary executions and rape.
A first vote on the resolution in a General Assembly committee in November had garnered the support of 111 countries, with 19 against and 55 abstentions.
"This marks an increase of five yes votes... and is a strong call from the international community to improve the human rights situation in the country," said a statement from the European Union, which drafted the text with Japan.
North Korea slams resolution
Addressing the General Assembly, North Korea's deputy ambassador An Myong Hun slammed the resolution as "the product of a political plot and confrontation," based on a "fabricated" report by the commission of inquiry.
"My delegation will not tolerate any attempt to use the human rights issues as a tool for overthrowing its social system," he said.
UN attention should focus instead on "CIA torture crimes committed by the United States in the most brutal and shocking manner," said the envoy, referring to the recent US report on brutal interrogations of Al-Qaeda suspects.
Cuba, which had led a campaign to scrap provisions on the ICC referral from the resolution, said the vote set a dangerous precedent by seeking to punish countries instead of developing cooperation.
China and Russia voted against the resolution, as did Belarus Cuba, Iran, Syria and Venezuela.
Among those who voted to support the resolution were South Sudan, El Salvador and Grenada, which had abstained in the previous vote.
Three countries that were absent during the first round of voting -- Dominica, Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome -- voted yes.
But Tajikistan, which had voted yes in the first round of voting, decided to abstain.
Human rights groups applauded the outcome.
"Today's vote sends a powerful message that the world is gravely concerned about the horrific human rights situation in North Korea," said Param-Preet Singh of Human Rights Watch.
"That these abuses are linked to policies at the highest level of the state highlights the North Korean government's desperation to maintain the status quo and makes today's vote all the more significant."