China dismissed a UN report alleging North Korea has committed crimes against humanity, effectively confirming the fears of human rights advocates that Beijing will shield its ally Pyongyang from international prosecution.
The report, published in February, accused the reclusive country of mass killings and torture comparable to Nazi-era atrocities and said officials, possibly even Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un himself, should face the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Chen Chuandong, a counselor at China's mission in Geneva, told the UN Human Rights Council on Monday that the independent commission of inquiry had made unfounded accusations and made recommendations that were "divorced from reality."
"The inability of the commission to get support and cooperation from the country concerned makes it impossible for the commission to carry out its mandate in an impartial, objective and effective manner," Chen said.
China, as a member of the UN Security Council, would have the power to veto any move to refer North Korea to the Hague-based ICC. Diplomats had already warned China was likely to object to the report, which also criticized Beijing for its treatment of North Korean defectors.
The chief author of the report, retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, had opened the debate urging the United Nations to take action.
"Contending with the scourges of Nazism, apartheid, the Khmer Rouge and other affronts required courage by great nations and ordinary human beings alike," Kirby said.
"It is now your solemn duty to address the scourge of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea."
Kirby said the team's findings, based on testimony from hundreds of victims, defectors and witnesses, were unequivocal, and demanded closure of political prison camps believed to hold up to 120,000 people.
But Chen said the report was based on information and interviews collected outside the country, without first hand information. "The question then arises: can such an inquiry be truly credible?"
The commission has been seeking a meeting with Chinese officials in Geneva, UN officials said. "We are not very optimistic that it will happen," a UN official told Reuters.
Shin Dong Hyuk, a North Korean born in a political prison camp who escaped after his mother and brother were publicly executed, told Reuters he had expected China to reject the report.
But the "big purpose" of establishing the inquiry was to get the report discussed at the UN Security Council, he added.
In a speech at the Geneva debate, he noted that millions of people had been slaughtered in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
"And 60 years later, at this moment in North Korea, hundreds of thousands of political prisoners are waiting for their death," he said, adding that the report could not be "thrown away like a used tissue and forgotten".
US Ambassador Robert King, the US envoy on North Korean human rights issues, said pressure on Pyongyang would go on even if China blocked a UN Security Council resolution.
"The fact that right now we may not be able to go forward as far as we'd like to go does not mean that we're going to stop and say we can't do anything more, and we're not going to do it," he told reporters. "Human rights are not a quick and easy fix and we're not going to stop."
North Korean Ambassador So Se Pyong reiterated Pyongyang's rejection of the report, rubbishing it as a ridiculous provocation and a fabrication instigated by the United States and other "hostile forces," who he said should be investigated for their own human rights records.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Andrew Heavens)