BEIJING, Feb 18 (Reuters) - China rejected what it said was "unreasonable criticism" of Beijing in a new U.N. report on human rights abuses in North Korea, but it would not be drawn on whether it would veto any proceedings in the Security Council to bring Pyongyang to book.
North Korean security chiefs and possibly even Kim Jong Un, the leader of the country, should face international justice for ordering systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities, U.N. investigators said on Monday.
The unprecedented public rebuke and warning to a head of state by a U.N. inquiry is likely to further antagonise Kim and complicate efforts to persuade him to rein in his isolated country's nuclear weapons programme and belligerent confrontations with South Korea and the West.
The U.N. investigators also told China, the North's main ally, that it might be "aiding and abetting crimes against humanity" by sending migrants and defectors back to North Korea to face torture or execution, a charge that prompted a sharp rebuke from Beijing.
"Of course we cannot accept this unreasonable criticism," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing on Tuesday. "We believe that politicising human rights issues is not conducive towards improving a country's human rights.
"We believe that taking human rights issues to the International Criminal Court is not helpful to improving a country's human rights situation."
Hua would not answer what she said was a "hypothetical question" on whether China would use its veto powers if the report was brought to the U.N. Security Council for further action. Diplomats have said China will most likely block any such proceedings.
Asked why China blocked U.N. investigators from going to the North Korean border, across which many North Koreans cross illegally, Hua said she could not comment and would have to look into the matter.
"These people are not refugees. We term them illegal North Korean migrants," she added.
China deals with these people appropriately "in accordance with international and domestic laws and the humanitarian principles", Hua said, declining to provide an estimate for how many of these people have cross into China.
The investigators told Kim in a letter they were advising the United Nations to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court to make sure any culprits "including possibly yourself" were held accountable.
In a statement in Geneva, North Korea "categorically and totally" rejected the accusations set out in the 372-page report, saying they were based on material faked by hostile forces backed by the United States, the European Union and Japan.
RIGHT TO RULE
"The world is finally waking up to the fact that North Korea is a far-right state, in that the regime derives its right to rule from a commitment to military might and racial purity," said Brian Myers, a South Korea-based North Korea expert.
"But for that very reason, the regime has never felt very embarrassed by criticism of its human rights record, and has reported sneeringly on that criticism to its own people. Perhaps it will realize that it cannot keep attracting investors and collaborators without making more of a pretence to progressive or leftist tendencies."
The findings came out of a year-long investigation involving public testimony by defectors, including former prison camp guards, at hearings in South Korea, Japan, Britain and the United States.
Defectors included Shin Dong-hyuk, who gave harrowing accounts of his life and escape from a prison camp. As a 13-year-old, he informed a prison guard of a plot by his mother and brother to escape and both were executed, according to a book on his life called "Escape from Camp 14".
The investigators said abuses were mainly perpetrated by officials in structures that ultimately reported to Kim - state security, the Ministry of People's Security, the army, the judiciary and Workers' Party of Korea.
The team recommended targeted U.N. sanctions against civil officials and military commanders suspected of the worst crimes. It did not reveal any names, but said it had compiled a database of suspects from evidence and testimony. (Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by James Pearson in SEOUL)