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The United Nations on Thursday said it will for the first time establish a commission of inquiry into grave human rights violations in North Korea that may amount to crimes against humanity.
The UN's Human Rights Council passed a resolution to establish a commission to probe "the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea... with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity".
Japan and the European Union, with the backing of other Western countries including the United States, had presented the resolution, which passed with full consensus in the 47-member council.
"For too long, the population of the country has been subjected to wide and systematic human rights violations and abuses," lamented Irish ambassador Gerard Corr, speaking on behalf of the EU.
North Korea's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Pyong Se So, swiftly rejected the resolution, insisting to the council that it was "full of fabrications" and merely a "political ploy" to "disgrace the image of the Democratic Republic of Korea".
His country had "one of the best systems in the world for the protection of human rights", he added.
Activists meanwhile hailed the resolution as a "landmark step".
"This long awaited inquiry will help expose decades of abuse by the North Korean government," said Julie de Rivero of Human Rights Watch, insisting in a statement that the UN probe would be "a crucial first step toward ensuring accountability for crimes against humanity and other human rights violations in North Korea".
The UN's special rapporteur on North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, presented a report to the council earlier this month in which he accused Pyongyang of a string of violations that could constitute crimes against humanity, including depriving the population of food, torture and arbitrary detention.
He also highlighted concerns about a network of political prison camps believed to hold some 200,000 people, including detainees who were born in captivity because entire families are thought to have been sent there.
And he condemned Pyongyang's kidnapping of foreigners, which the country has partially acknowledged.
Abductees, notably from Japan, are thought to have been used to train North Korean agents about foreign culture, and Pyongyang's failure to come clean has remained a thorn in relations with Tokyo.
Thursday's resolution condemned a long line of abuses, "in particular the use of torture and labour camps against political prisoners and repatriated citizens".
It urged Pyongyang to "immediately end those practices and to release all political prisoners unconditionally and without delay".
The resolution also extended Darusman's mandate and said he should be one of three members on the new commission of inquiry.
It called on Pyongyang "to cooperate fully with the special rapporteur" and the investigation.
Like previous UN rights monitors, Darusman has so far not been granted access to North Korea and for his analysis he relied largely on testimony from North Koreans who have fled the country.
North Korea, run by a Stalinist regime since the end of World War II, is one of the most isolated nations on the planet.
In recent years, it has locked horns with the international community over its nuclear programme, and military tensions on the Korean peninsula have escalated dramatically since the North conducted its third nuclear test last month.
But while devoting spending to its nuclear activities, the North has simultaneously tapped foreign aid after suffering intermittent famines.
Thursday's resolution also expressed alarm at "the precarious humanitarian situation in (North Korea), exacerbated by its national policy priorities", urging Pyongyang to "ensure full, rapid and unimpeded access of humanitarian assistance that is delivered on the basis of need".