At U.N. council, U.S. calls life in North Korea 'living nightmare'

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power speaks at the Center for American Progress' 2014 Making Progress Policy Conference in Washington November 19, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (Reuters)

By Louis Charbonneau UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States and other Western members of the U.N. Security Council on Monday slammed North Korea's human rights record after voting to overrule China's objections and add alleged grave abuses by the hermit state to the council's agenda. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described life in North Korea as a "living nightmare" and dismissed as absurd Pyongyang's demand for a joint U.S.-North Korean investigation of the hacking of Sony Pictures and threats of retaliation if the United States refused. North Korea rejected the council move and warned that decisions on how to respond would be made in Pyongyang. The council meeting on North Korea came after a rare procedural vote sparked by China's objections to the inclusion of North Korea on the council's agenda. There were 11 votes in favor, two against and two abstentions. Russia and China voted against the inclusion of North Korea on the council's agenda, but as there are no vetoes in procedural votes of the council, the Chinese attempt to defeat the measure failed. The last time the council held a procedural vote was in 2006, when it added Myanmar to its agenda. Until now, the council's discussions of North Korea have been limited to its nuclear weapons program. But with Monday's vote, all aspects of the country can now be scrutinized by the 15-nation body. Before the vote, China U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi said "the Security Council is not the forum to get involved in human rights issues" and it "should refrain from doing anything that might cause an escalation." After the vote, a formal meeting on North Korea began immediately, as requested by Australian Ambassador Gary Quinlan and nine other mostly Western ambassadors. He described the council move as "an historic step." "The DPRK (North Korea) is in effect a totalitarian state which uses violence and repression against its own citizens to maintain itself and its threatening military apparatus in power," Quinlan said. "The regime's atrocities against its own people have created an inherently unstable state." HORRIFIC ACCOUNTS Monday's meeting comes after the General Assembly on Friday urged the council to consider referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity as alleged in a U.N. inquiry report released in February. North Korea did not participate in the meeting. Pyongyang says the rights criticism is based on lies. A North Korean diplomat warned that a decision on how to respond to the Security Council move on Monday, which he blamed on the United States, will come from Pyongyang. In a letter to the council sent on Monday, North Korean Ambassador Ja Song Nam said the council actions were "a politically motivated dangerous attempt to lay a ground for an invasion of the DPRK under the pretext of 'human rights.'" He said it was "the most undisguised manifestation of the hostile policy pursued by the United States against the DPRK." Power cited horrific accounts from defectors who fled North Korean prison camps - accounts Pyongyang dismisses as fabricated. "Ahn Myong Chul, a former guard at Prison Camp 22, spoke of guards routinely raping prisoners," she said. "In one case in which a victim became pregnant and gave birth, the former guard reported, prison officials cooked her baby and fed it to their dogs." Power also touched on the hacking of Sony Pictures, which Washington blames on North Korea. She dismissed as "absurd" North Korea's calls for a joint investigation of the incident with the United States and threats of retaliation if it refused. "It is exactly the kind of behavior we have come to expect from a regime that threatened to take 'merciless countermeasures' against the U.S. over a Hollywood comedy, and has no qualms about holding tens of thousands of people in harrowing gulags," Power said. North Korea diplomat Kim Song reiterated that his country has "no relation" to the hacking. She urged the council to heed recommendations of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry that North Korea be referred to the ICC. Other council members gave similar speeches. "The international community cannot ignore such detailed and grave findings," said British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant. The Commission of Inquiry report details wide-ranging abuses in North Korea, including prison camps, systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities. "Rarely has such an extensive charge-sheet of international crimes been brought to this council's attention," Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic told the council. "It documents a totalitarian system that is characterized by brutally enforced denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association," he added. Council scrutiny is unlikely to land North Korea at the ICC, which looks at genocide and other crimes against humanity, as China could veto a council referral to the ICC. China is Pyongyang's principal ally and protector. (Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli, Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)