The comment followed a long-awaited UN report on the atrocities committed against the North Korean people, which concluded the hardline communist country’s security chiefs – including supreme leader Kim Jong-un himself – should face international justice for ordering systematic torture, starvation and killings.
Michael Kirby, chairman of the independent UN Commission of Inquiry that compiled the report, said the crimes the team had catalogued were reminiscent of those committed by Nazis during the Second World War.
Speaking at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, after releasing the report, he said: “At the end of the Second World War, so many people said, ‘If only we had known, if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces’.
“Well, now the international community does know. There will be no excusing the failure of action because we didn’t know – we do know.”
The investigators say they have advised the UN to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC), to make sure the guilty parties are held accountable.
The UN commission said Kim had failed to respond to an advance copy of the report, and a letter which warned him he could be held personally responsible for abuses.
Mr Kirby said Kim had been named in the report because he was at the centre of the country’s power, adding: “If you are at the centre, then you have power to change things.”
He also said: “I do expect that the report will galvanise action on the part of the international community.”
Mr Kirby believed hundreds of North Korean officials might be guilty of having committed the gravest crimes.
The independent investigators’ 372-page report listed atrocities including murder, torture, rape, abduction, enslavement, starvation and executions.
“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world,” it said, adding that “systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials”.
The team said police and security forces “systematically employ violence and punishments that amount to gross human rights violations”.
It added torture was an “established feature of the interrogation process” in the country and that food was used as a means of control over the population.
First-person accounts of the various forms of abuse and torture were accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations by witnesses of the atrocities. US officials said the report “clearly and unequivocally documents the brutal reality” of North Korea’s human rights abuses.
The unprecedented public rebuke and warning to a ruling head of state by a UN Commission of Inquiry is likely to further antagonise Kim and complicate efforts to persuade him to rein in his isolated country’s nuclear weapons programme and belligerent confrontations with South Korea and the West.
The UN investigators said they had told officials in China that they might be “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity” by sending migrants and defectors back to North Korea to face torture and execution – a charge Chinese officials dismissed.
Diplomatic and UN sources have suggested a special tribunal could be set up. “We’ve collected all the testimony and can’t just stop and wait ten years. The idea is to sustain work,” said one.
The findings came out of a year-long investigation involving public testimony by defectors, including former prison camp guards, at hearings in South Korea, Japan, Britain and the United States.
Defectors included Shin Dong-hyuk, who gave harrowing accounts of his life and escape from a prison camp. As a 13-year-old, he informed a prison guard of a plot by his mother and brother to escape and both were executed, according to a book on his life called Escape from Camp 14.
North Korea’s diplomatic mission in Geneva dismissed the findings.
“We will continue to strongly respond to the end to any attempt of regime-change and pressure under the pretext of ‘human rights protection’,” it said.
The two-page North Korean statement, in English, said the report was an “instrument of a political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system” and defaming the country.