A United Nations panel has served notice to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, that he may be held personally liable in court for crimes against humanity committed by state institutions and officials under his direct control.
A letter conveying that warning forms part of a report by the panel to the United Nations Human Rights Council, released on Monday after a yearlong investigation.
The report is viewed by critics of North Korea not only as the most detailed and authoritative compilation of data on the state of human rights there, but also as a milestone in the international debate over one of the world's most reclusive countries.
In the letter, dated Jan. 20, the panel's chairman, the retired Australian judge Michael Donald Kirby, summarized the investigation's findings of crimes against humanity committed by officials who could be inferred to be acting under Mr. Kim's personal control.
Addressing Mr. Kim, 31, Judge Kirby wrote in the letter that his panel would recommend that the United Nations Security Council refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court, to make all those responsible for crimes accountable, ''including possibly yourself.''
At a news conference Monday at the Geneva offices of the United Nations, Judge Kirby said: ''I hope that the international community will be moved by the detail, the amount, the long duration, the great suffering and the many tears that have existed in North Korea to act on the crimes against humanity. Too many times in this building there are reports and no action. Well, now is a time for action. We can't say we didn't know.''
North Korea denounced the report, and the entire process leading up to it, as a concoction of lies and deceits by its enemies, including South Korea and the United States.
A statement from the North Korean Mission in Geneva, quoted by Reuters, said that such rights violations ''do not exist in our country.'' The findings, the statement said, were ''an instrument of a political plot aimed at sabotaging the socialist system.''
The North Korean authorities repeatedly denied the panel's request for permission to visit the country to investigate abuses. The report relies heavily on testimony from North Korean refugees, escapees and asylum seekers.
The panel's 36-page summary report and its 372-page annex detail what the report describes as a wide range of crimes against humanity. The report also criticizes the political and security apparatus of the North Korean state, asserting that it uses surveillance, fear, public executions and disappearances ''to terrorize the population into submission.''
''Systematic, 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 report asserts. The report stops short of alleging genocide but specifies, among others, the crimes of ''extermination,'' murder, enslavement, torture, rape and persecution on the grounds of race, religion and gender.
The panel also reports on the abductions of foreign citizens, notably from Japan and South Korea, observing that ''these international forced disappearances are unique in their intensity, scale and nature.''
In many instances the abuses constitute crimes against humanity, the report asserts, adding that ''these are not mere excesses of the state; they are essential components,'' and they have been committed ''pursuant to policies at the highest level of the state.''
Rights activists pushed for the creation of the panel in a bid to broaden what has been the international community's focus on North Korea's nuclear program and bellicose security policies to the near exclusion of its human rights record. Its decades-long pursuit of what the report calls ''crimes that shock the conscience of humanity raises questions about the inadequacy of the international community.''
Lee Jung-hoon, South Korea's ambassador for human rights, said of the reports in a telephone interview: ''It really opens up a whole new chapter in the international reaction to North Korea. It's not just an investigation and a report and that's the end of it. It's giving a road map and blueprint to end this thing. There's a very strong sense of urgency.''
There appears to be little immediate prospect of winning approval for International Criminal Court prosecution, however. Approval is necessary from the Security Council's permanent members, which include North Korea's longtime protector, China.