SEOUL, South Korea -- A yearlong investigation by the United Nations is set to conclude that North Korea has committed crimes against humanity, according to a leaked outline of the report, in the most authoritative indictment to date of abuses carried out by Pyongyang's leaders.
The U.N. panel will also recommend that the North's crimes be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, according to The Associated Press, which obtained the outline of the findings. The report of the three-member Commission of Inquiry will be released today.
In establishing the panel, the U.N. has sought to address the challenge of a nation where abuses are carried out by an entrenched family-run government that faces almost no threat of international intervention.
Activists and human rights lawyers say the report, at minimum, will lead to broader global awareness of the North's city-size gulags and systematic abductions of foreigners. But they also say that the North's traditional ally, China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, could block any referral of findings to The Hague.
"It is exciting but also risky that the Commission appears to have requested the Security Council refer the situation in [North Korea] to the International Criminal Court," Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer and an expert on North Korean abuses, said in an email. "There is no doubt that legally such a referral would be highly justified and appropriate. But it is also bound to infuriate China."
The ICC defines crimes against humanity as any widespread or systematic attack -- using extermination, torture or rape, for instance -- carried out against civilians.
Within the past century, the North's abuses stand apart not necessarily because of their viciousness but because of their duration: North Korean founder Kim Il Sung set up the prison camps in the 1950s, and they have been in use ever since.
The North holds an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners in its camps.
One of those interviewed by the commission was Kim Hye-sook, who spent 28 years in Camp 18, which at the time was one of the North's largest gulags. She fled the camp in 2008 and is now living in South Korea.
Ms. Kim arrived at the camp when she was 13, imprisoned because her grandfather had allegedly fled to South Korea. While at the camp she went to school, married and worked in a mine. Her husband and brother died in mining accidents. Ms. Kim developed a pulmonary tumor from inhaling dust during her 16-to-18-hour work shifts.
Once a week, prisoners were forced to memorize tropes about North Korean ideology. When prisoners came to those ideology sessions, Ms. Kim said, security personnel would command the prisoners to get on their knees and open their mouths. Guards would then spit into them. If the prisoners didn't swallow, they would be savagely beaten.
"I agree with their findings," Ms. Kim said, "but I don't expect changes to come anytime soon."