NK human rights-UN

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with Korean officials' comments, AI's statement; CHANGES dateline

BRUSSELS/LONDON, March 21 (Yonhap) -- A United Nations body voted Thursday to embark on a formal investigation into human rights violations in North Korea, a move viewed as largely symbolic but significant in sending a message to Pyongyang.

In a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, the U.N. Human Rights Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a three-member Commission of Inquiry on North Korean Human Rights for a one-year mission. The time of its operation can be extended.

It is required to report the results of its probe to the U.N. General Assembly later this year and the next session of the U.N. council in March the following year.

The resolution condemns human rights abuses known to be prevalent in North Korea, including torture in political prison camps.

The top North Korean envoy in Geneva, So Se-pyong, said his country can't accept the resolution. He argued that it has a political purpose to damage North Korea's international image.

South Korean officials welcomed the U.N. move.

"It is meaningful that the resolution adopted this time includes the creation of the investigation commission and it was approved by consensus," said South Korea's ambassador to Geneva, Choi Seok-young.

Unlike previous resolutions by the U.N. council on the North Korean human rights record, he added, the new one calls for a far-reaching probe into the problem.

Western civic groups also hailed it.

"This long awaited inquiry will help expose decades of abuse by the North Korean government," Julie de Rivero, advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Amnesty International, headquartered in London, urged North Korea to fully cooperate with the upcoming investigation into "grave, systematic and widespread human rights violations in the country."

"The Commission of Inquiry is a positive step towards addressing the dire human rights situation in North Korea," said Rajiv Narayan, a North Korea researcher for Amnesty International. "U.N. member states have today sent a clear message to the North Korean authorities that those responsible for crimes against humanity will ultimately be held to account."

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