China said yesterday it would oppose any move at the United Nations to refer Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
The comment came just before a three-member UN panel recommended the referral of North Korea to the ICC in The Hague.
"I haven't seen the report, but our relevant position is clear-cut on this: issues concerning human rights should be solved through constructive dialogue on an equal footing," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. "To submit this report to the ICC will not help resolve the human rights situation in one country."
The panel's 372-page report is a wide-ranging indictment of North Korea for policies ranging from deliberate starvation and torture in political prison camps with 80,000 to 120,000 people, state-sponsored abductions, publicly motivated executions and lifelong indoctrination.
In a letter accompanying a the report, the panel's chairman, retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, directly warned North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that he may be held accountable for orchestrating widespread crimes.
"Even without being directly involved in crimes against humanity, a military commander may be held responsible for crimes against humanity committed by forces under the commander's effective command and control," he wrote.
Kirby also wrote to China's UN ambassador in Geneva saying there's evidence that Chinese officials have in some cases shared with North Korean officials "information about the contacts and conduct" of North Koreans subject to repatriation.
The ambassador, Wu Haitao, denied that repatriated citizens face torture in North Korea.
North Korea said it "categorically and totally rejects the report" and described the commission as "a marionette running here and there in order to represent the ill-minded purposes of the string-pullers, such as the United States, Japan and the member states of the EU".
Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer and an expert on North Korean abuses, said: "It is exciting but also risky that the commission appears to have requested the Security Council refer the situation in [North Korea] to the International Criminal Court. There is no doubt that legally such a referral would be highly justified and appropriate. But it is also bound to infuriate China."
The commission interviewed more than 80 victims and other witnesses in Seoul, Tokyo, London and Washington. It was aided by about a dozen staff and researchers - a major personnel shift for the UN, which had previously a single appointed volunteer dedicated to North Korean human rights.
Additional reporting by Associated Press