The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution Tuesday that reprimands North Korea for its human rights record and urges the Security Council to consider referring the matter to the International Criminal Court for prosecution — a move officials from the secretive country warned would result in "unpredictable and serious consequences."
One hundred and nineteen countries voted in favor of the resolution, which was first floated by the European Union and Japan, while 19 opposed it and 55 abstained. Among those who offered no votes were Russia and China, two of the five permanent members of the Security Council who hold veto power over any referrals to the ICC.
Syria, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Egypt, and Iran were also among those that voted no.
Pressure has been building on North Korea since a February report by a UN Commission of Inquiry painted the country as a human rights hellscape. The North Korean government is accused of starving, murdering, and detaining tens of thousands of its citizens in political prisons. Those atrocities, the commission found, amounted to possible crimes against humanity.
In September, Pyongyang issued a response to the UN's account in the form of its own human rights report. The results were conclusive: The North Korean authors wrote that their country has "the world's most advantageous human rights system."
On Tuesday, North Korea repeated claims that the Commission of Inquiry was secretly orchestrated by the United States in an effort to overthrow their government. They said the Commission's report "is only based on the fabricated testimonies of a handful of defectors."
'We are talking about crimes against humanity'
"We will continue to safeguard our socialist system by all means," a North Korean representative told delegates.
Earlier in the day, the General Assembly failed to adopt an amendment put forth by Cuba that would have stripped the resolution of any reference to the ICC. Opponents of the eventual resolution — including India and other countries that abstained — said it opened the door for politically motivated investigations by the world body. Cuba's delegation said similar resolutions could become a "tool to sanction and condemn developing countries."
Param-Preet Singh, senior council at Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program, told VICE News that the North Korea resolution was not politically motivated.
"We aren't talking about views, we are talking about crimes against humanity — it's not up for debate," said Singh.
In October, North Korea — formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) — indicated it might allow the UN's special rapporteur for human rights in the DPRK to visit for the country for the first time. The visit, however, was contingent on removing the language about accountability from the resolution. When the language remained, North Korea said it would "suspend overall consultations on the resolution."
North Korea's UN mission added that more than 50 countries that eventually co-sponsored the resolution "will have to take full responsibility for all the consequences to be incurred."
China and possibly Russia are widely expected to veto any referral of North Korea to the ICC. In May, both countries vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have requested the ICC investigate war crimes in Syria.
Nevertheless, Singh said the measure sends a powerful message.
"It's not an all or nothing game, you have to look at this holistically," she said. "Change in North Korea doesn't have to mean regime change. The resolution puts pressure on those states that would prefer to look the other way."
"For too long the human rights situation in North Korea has been ignored," Singh added.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford