A United Nations panel today announced that North Korea has committed crimes against humanity, calling for the reclusive state to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). A UN commission presented its findings Monday in a report that experts describe as the most authoritative and damning account to date of the abuses carried out under the Kim family for the past 60 years. Pyongyang says it "categorically and totally rejects" the UN's findings, while China has signaled that it will move to block initiatives to bring the country before the ICC.

"These are not the occasional wrongs that can be done by officials everywhere in the world," Michael Kirby, a retired Australian judge and head of the panel, said at a press conference in Geneva today. "These are wrongs against humanity, they are wrongs that shock the conscience of humanity."

The 372-page report covers a broad range of crimes, including "extermination," forced abortions, rape, and widespread abductions in South Korea and Japan. The UN's findings are based on satellite imagery and harrowing testimony gathered from more than 80 victims and witnesses over the past 11 months, including many who survived after being sent to one of North Korea's notorious prison camps. The country's prison camp system was set up in the 1950s under Kim Il Sung, grandfather of current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and they remain in use today. The UN estimates that the country today holds up to 120,000 political prisoners at its secretive camps, located in isolated mountainous areas.

"ordinary people who faced torture and imprisonment."

Underpinning these crimes is a "vast political and security apparatus that strategically uses surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent," the report reads. The government routinely uses food deprivation as a means of social control, and restrictions on citizens' freedom of movement have forced many women to work in sex trades outside of North Korea. Those who flee are often forced to repatriate, resulting in even worse atrocities. "Repatriated women who are pregnant are regularly subjected to forced abortions, and babies born to repatriated women are often killed," the report adds.

At today's press conference, Kirby urged international leaders to take action, comparing the crisis to the horrific revelations made at the end of World War II. "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. If only we had known that'," Kirby said. "Well now, the international community does know... There will be no excusing failure of action because we didn’t know. We do know."

The UN's three-member panel, established last March, was not allowed entry into North Korea, but held public hearings with witnesses in Seoul, London, San Francisco, and Tokyo over the past year. The cases described in today's report include harrowing testimony from one former prison camp inmate, who told the panel that inmates were routinely forced to burn the dead bodies of other prisoners and use their ashes for fertilizer.

"On one occasion, he was forced to bring a pile of bodies up the mountain and saw that rats had already gnawed of the flesh from their faces," the report reads. "The witness estimates that at least 800 prisoners died every year from malnourishment, infectious diseases, and accidents at work."

"torture, sexual violence, inhumane treatment and arbitrary detention."

"We heard from ordinary people who faced torture and imprisonment for doing nothing more than watching foreign soap operas or holding a religious belief," Kirby said before the UN Human Rights Council in September. "Women and men who exercised their human right to leave the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] and were forcibly repatriated spoke about their experiences of torture, sexual violence, inhumane treatment and arbitrary detention. Family members of persons abducted from the Republic of Korea and Japan described the agony they endured ever since the enforced disappearance of their loved ones at the hands of agents of the DPRK."

In a letter to Kim Jong Un published by the Guardian today, Kirby wrote that the commission will recommend bringing North Korea before the ICC "to render accountable all those, including yourself, who may be responsible for the crimes against humanity" detailed in its report. But referring North Korea to the ICC would require unanimous support from the Security Council, and China, a traditional ally of Pyongyang, would likely veto the move. On Monday, China said it would not support the initiative, noting that it would not improve human rights conditions in North Korea. In a statement released ahead of Monday's announcement in Geneva, North Korea dismissed the UN's report as an "instrument of a political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system" and undermining the country.

"the real question now is, what next?"

The commission has acknowledged that political obstacles may hinder international action, though its report notes that continued surveillance and stronger criticism could help impede future abuses and perhaps provide an impetus for broader change.

The country's alleged human rights violations have been previously documented by several organizations and activists, but experts say the report published today adds new weight to the claims.

"They're ground-breaking in that it's the first time that the United Nations as an institution has found that crimes against humanity are being committed against the people of North Korea," Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer, said of the report's findings in an interview with BBC News. "But of course it's also unremarkable in the sense that those of us who have worked on North Korea human rights for many, many years are aware of the sheer weight of evidence coming out of North Korea over decades now ... And so the real question now is, what next?"

Human rights groups said today's findings should spur world leaders to focus more on North Korea's social and humanitarian problems, saying they've so far been overshadowed by concerns over the regime's nuclear program.

"This shocking report should open the eyes of the UN Security Council to the atrocities that plague the people of North Korea and threaten stability in the region," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "By focusing only on the nuclear threat in North Korea, the Security Council is overlooking the crimes of North Korean leaders who have overseen a brutal system of gulags, public executions, disappearances, and mass starvation."

The commission also called for the Security Council to adopt "targeted sanctions" against those responsible for the crimes in North Korea, noting that any actions should target individuals, rather than the economy as a whole. No commanders or politicians were mentioned by name, but the panel said it has compiled a database of suspects. The findings and recommendations will be formally presented to the Human Rights Council on March 17th.

Additional reporting by Aaron Souppouris.