The United Nations' top human rights body has unanimously approved a formal probe into North Korea for possible crimes against humanity.
The 47-nation UN Human Rights Council signed off on the resolution backed by the US, Japan and the European Union on Thursday.
The resolution authorises an investigation into what UN officials describe as suspected widespread and systematic violations of human rights in North Korea.
Japan's ambassador, Takashi Okada, denounced the abduction of foreign nationals and other disappearances in North Korea, and said the aim of the investigation is to "guide the international community in addressing this situation from an independent and impartial stand point".
'Patterns of rights violations'
The vote follows the recommendations of UN special rapporteur Marzuki Darusman, who told the Geneva-based council in a report last month that the secretive Asian nation displays nine patterns of human rights violations.
Darusman said the "grave, widespread and systematic violations of human rights" include having prison camps, the enforced disappearances of citizens and using food to control people.
It paves the way for the creation of a "Commission of Inquiry" for one year with three members and calls on Pyongyang to co-operate with that team of independent experts, which will include Darusman.
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However, North Korea's UN Ambassador in Geneva, So Se Pyong, fiercely denounced the move.
He said the resolution was "no more than an instrument that serves the political purposes of the hostile forces in their attempt to discredit the image of the DPRK and to change the socialist system chosen and developed by our people".
He was referring to North Korea by the initials of its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The resolution itself was "political invectives with serious distortions, fabrications and accusations about the human rights situation of the DPRK," he added.
"As we have stated time and again, those human rights abuses have totally nothing to do with the DPRK."
Crimes against humanity
In 22 previous reports over the past nine years and 16 resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly, the world body of 193 nations has again and again condemned North Korea's human rights record.
The UN's top rights official, Navi Pillay, also has urged such an investigation - the Commission of Inquiry authorised by the United Nations, but performed by independent experts.
She has said the UN has amassed evidence indicating that up to 200,000 people are being held in North Korean political prison camps rife with torture, rape and slave labor, and that some of the abuses may amount to crimes against humanity.
Julie de Rivero of Human Rights Watch in Geneva said the "long awaited inquiry will help expose decades of abuse by the North Korean government" and send a strong message to Pyongyang that the world is watching.
But North Korea maintains that US hostility and the threat of American troops in South Korea lurk as factors in the push for an international investigation. The US stations about 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.