Inmates in North Korea's prison camps have suffered starvation, torture and other "unspeakable atrocities", UN human rights investigators claimed today in a report.
There have long been concerns about reports of atrocities including executions and torture, but they have largely been overshadowed by international alarm about North Korea's nuclear weapons.
Today's report came after pressure by Japan, South Korea and Western powers to investigate and begin building a case for possible criminal prosecution.
"They are representative of large-scale patterns that may constitute systematic and gross human rights violations," Kirby added.
The former justice of Australia's top court told the council: "I have been a judge for a very long time and I'm pretty hardened to testimony. But the testimony that I saw in Seoul and in Tokyo brought tears to my eyes on several occasions, including testimony of Mr. And Mrs. Yokota."
Their daughter Megumi Yokota, 13, vanished on her way home from school in Japan in 1977. She was one of 13 Japanese that Kim Jong-il, the late father of the current leader Kim Jong-un admitted in 2002 to having kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies. Pyongyang has said eight of them are dead, including Megumi.
Some North Korean exiles testified that they had faced torture and imprisonment "for doing nothing more than watching foreign soap operas on DVDs", Kirby said.
A North Korean woman testified how she "witnessed a female prisoner forced to drown her own baby in a bucket". Kirby cited testimony of torture, starvation, and punishing generations of families under the so-called practice of "guilt by association".
Kirby said the independent inquiry would seek to determine which North Korean institutions and officials were responsible.
The report did not say what kind of prosecution might be considered. North Korea is not a member of the International Criminal Court, but the UN Security Council can ask the Hague-based court to investigate alleged abuses by non-signatories.
North Korean diplomat Kim Yong Ho said the inquiry was a fake and defamatory "political plot" to force regime change in North Korea. It had been politicised by the European Union and Japan, "in alliance with the US hostile policy", Kim said.
"We will continue to oppose any attempt of regime change and pressure under pretext of 'human rights protection'," he said.
"Politicised accusations and pressures are not helpful to improving human rights in any country. On the contrary they will only provoke confrontation and undermine the foundation and atmosphere for international human rights cooperation," said Chinese diplomat Chen Chuandong.
Recently the situation of the Korean Peninsula had shown a "positive trend of relaxation", he said.
Shin Dong-hyuk, North Korea's best-known defector who escaped a political prison camp where he was born, was among those who testified in South Korea.
Kirby, referring to Shin, said: "We think of the testimony of a young man, imprisoned from birth and living on rodents, lizards and grass to survive and witnessing the public execution of his mother and his brother."
The investigators, who have not had access to the country despite repeated requests, said the testimony by defectors and other witnesses and "extensive evidence" stood unanswered.
Kirby challenged Pyongyang to produce "an ounce of evidence" in its defence.