A key U.N. human rights committee has passed a resolution recommending North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
The non-binding resolution, drafted by Japan and the European Union, was approved overwhelmingly Tuesday by the General Assembly's Third Committee.
The resolution is based on a February U.N. Commission of Inquiry that detailed decades of systematic executions, torture, rape, and mass starvation in the North.
Michael Kirby, who headed the commission, told VOA the committee's decision was "historic."
"It's an indication that the United Nations, in very grave matters of human rights where there is probably cause for believing crimes against humanity have occurred, will take the hard yards (do tedious work required), will take the important steps and it will do so by a strong vote," said Kirby.
South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Noh Kwang-il said Seoul welcomes the committee's decision.
"The adoption of the resolution reflects the international community's concern and willingness that the recommendations by the Commission of Inquiry should be thoroughly implemented to improve the situation in North Korea. We hope that North Korea accepts the recommendations and takes concrete steps to improve human rights," said Noh.
North Korea has repeatedly denied committing human rights atrocities, and accuses the United States and its allies of seeking to discredit and overthrow the leadership in Pyongyang.
Debate on the resolution is expected next month in the General Assembly, where it is also expected to pass.
But it is not clear whether it can clear the 15-member Security Council, where China has traditionally protected North Korea, its ally. Both China and Russia voted against the measure on Tuesday.
Speaking before Tuesday's vote, the executive director of the non-governmental Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, Greg Scarlatoiu, said the push to hold Pyongyang accountable will have been worthwhile, even if China vetoes the initiative.
"Let China place itself in the position where it is repeatedly attempting to block initiatives to refer the North Korean case to the International Criminal Court. Let China place itself in a position where it is clearly and obviously aiding and abetting a regime that is committing crimes against humanity. The political price of doing that is only going to get higher," said Scarlatoiu.
Facing the looming U.N. votes, the Pyongyang government has in recent weeks sought to ease mounting international criticism of its rights record. It has released three detained Americans and expressed a willingness to allow top U.N. rights officials to the visit the country.
Despite those gestures, Human Rights Watch called for U.N. members to pass what it described as a "landmark resolution." Amnesty International and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights also urged committee members to resist pressure to delete references to accountability for "decades of terrible abuse."
VOA's Korean Service contributed to this report.