UNITED NATIONS, United States (AFP) - North Korea comes under scrutiny on Monday at the UN Security Council in the first-ever meeting on its dismal rights record, amid calls for Pyongyang to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
Until now, the top UN body has focused on North Korea's nuclear program as a security threat, but the scope has widened to human rights following the release of a UN commission of inquiry report.
US Ambassador Samantha Power said the UN report released in February confirmed that "the human rights violations in North Korea are among the worst in the world. They are widespread. They are systematic."
"And - given the threat they pose to peace and security - they have been going on outside the scrutiny of the UN Security Council for far too long."
The unprecedented meeting comes as North Korea faces US accusations of staging a cyberattack on Sony Pictures that exposed embarrassing emails and scuttled the release of a movie.
Ten of the 15 council members pushed for North Korea to be put on the agenda, but Russia and China argued that rights concerns should be addressed at the UN Human Rights Council, and not the Security Council.
China is expected to again raise objections at the meeting on Monday.
"The Security Council is not the right place to discuss human rights issues, and to refer human rights issues to the International Criminal Court will by no means solve the problems," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
Under UN procedures, North Korea can attend the council meeting and voice its views, but it has decided to stay away.
"We cannot recognize the Security Council meeting. Its mandate is not human rights," said political counselor Kim Song from the North Korean mission at the United Nations.
"We will not attend," he told AFP.
- Calls for ICC referral -
The UN General Assembly put the international spotlight on North Korea when it adopted a landmark resolution on Thursday calling on the Security Council to consider referring North Korea to the ICC for crimes against humanity.
The resolution, approved by a vote of 116 to 20 with 53 abstentions, draws heavily from the findings of the UN inquiry that detailed a vast network of prison camps, torture, summary executions and rape.
But diplomats agree the council is unlikely to follow up on the resolution, with China widely expected to veto an ICC referral for North Korea.
On Monday, two top UN officials for political affairs and human rights will brief the council.
While no concrete outcome is expected from the meeting, human rights groups say the fact that it is being held at all is a watershed.
"Monday's meeting is a game-changer," said Param-Preet Singh of Human Rights Watch.
"It marks the first time human rights in North Korea will be formally discussed at the Security Council. It reflects the international community's overwhelming appetite to see the devastating crimes catalogued by the commission of inquiry addressed."