North Korea faces key vote in UN on human rights, possible criminal court referral

An anxious North Korea will see Tuesday how the boldest effort yet to bring its leaders to account for alleged crimes against humanity will move forward, as the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee votes on a resolution that demands the country's referral to the International Criminal Court.

The vote follows a groundbreaking U.N. commission of inquiry report on North Korea early this year that declared the country's human rights situation "exceeds all others in duration, intensity and horror." Based on interviews with dozens of people who had fled the country, the report detailed abuses including starvation and a system of harsh prison camps containing up to 120,000 people.

The mere possibility that young leader Kim Jong Un could be targeted by prosecutors has led the impoverished but nuclear-armed North Korea on a surprising campaign to promote its rights record — described by a Pyongyang envoy in a rare appearance last month as "the politics of love for the people" — and to dangle hints of cooperation, including a possible visit by the U.N. human rights chief.

But as Tuesday's vote approached, North Korea increasingly focused on simply removing the language about an ICC referral. On Monday, the country's deputy ambassador moved from seat to seat during a human rights committee meeting on other issues, focusing on potential allies.

"We will see," Ri Tong Il said of his country's chances between chats with Russia, Indonesia, Nicaragua and several African nations.

The non-binding draft resolution sponsored by the European Union and Japan calls on the U.N. Security Council to refer North Korea's situation to the ICC. Permanent council member China has signaled that it would veto such a move, but a new generation of Chinese in power is straining the formerly tight relationship with its neighbor.

North Korea has been nervous enough to court Russia, another permanent council member, with high-level visits in recent weeks.

In Tuesday's vote, the resolution's sponsors and their Western allies are up against a number of countries that object to being singled out on human rights issues, like Iran and Cuba, which has been under a U.S. economic and financial embargo for decades.

Cuba has proposed an amendment that would delete the resolution's language about an ICC referral, arguing that any country could be targeted like this in the future.

The European Union and Japan on Monday made a last-minute appeal to U.N. member states to support their resolution and to reject the Cuba-proposed amendment. The letter reminded countries of North Korea's dismissive attitude toward human rights before the commission of inquiry's report this year changed its tone.

A trio of human rights groups — Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights — called on U.N. member countries to support the resolution and "ensure justice for decades of terrible abuse."