(Corrects 16th paragraph to say Kirby is a former justice of the High Court of Australia, not chief justice)
* Panel urges U.N. to refer Pyongyang to global court
* 372-page report catalogues starvation, torture, executions
* China returning defectors "may amount to abetting crimes"
* North Korea "categorically and totally" rejects report
By Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles
GENEVA, Feb 17 (Reuters) - North Korean security chiefs and possibly even Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un himself should face international justice for ordering systematic torture, starvation and mass killings bordering on genocide, U.N. investigators said on Monday.
The investigators told Kim in a letter they were advising the United Nations to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC), to ensure any culprits "including possibly yourself" were held accountable.
North Korea said it "categorically and totally" rejected the investigators' report, which it called "a product of politicisation of human rights on the part of EU and Japan in alliance with the U.S. hostile policy".
The unprecedented public warning and rebuke to a ruling head of state by a U.N. Commission of Inquiry is likely to complicate efforts to persuade the isolated country to rein in its nuclear weapons programme and belligerent confrontations with South Korea and the West.
The U.N. investigators said they had also told Kim's main ally China that it might be "aiding and abetting crimes against humanity" by sending migrants and defectors back to North Korea, where they faced torture and execution - a charge that Chinese officials had rebutted.
As referral to the ICC is seen as a dim hope, given China's likely veto of any such move by Western powers in the U.N. Security Council, thoughts are also turning to setting up some form of special tribunal on North Korea, diplomatic and U.N. sources told Reuters.
"We've collected all the testimony and can't just stop and wait 10 years. The idea is to sustain work," said one.
"REMINISCENT OF NAZI ATROCITIES"
Michael Kirby, chairman of the independent Commission of Inquiry, told Reuters the crimes the team had catalogued in a 372-page report were reminiscent of those committed by Nazis during World War Two.
"Some of them are strikingly similar," he said.
"Testimony was given ... in relation to the political prison camps of large numbers of people who were malnourished, who were effectively starved to death and then had to be disposed of in pots burned and then buried ... It was the duty of other prisoners in the camps to dispose of them," he said.
The independent investigators' report, the size of a telephone directory, listing atrocities including murder, torture, rape, abductions, enslavement, starvation and executions.
"The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world," it said.
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".
North Korea's diplomatic mission in Geneva dismissed the findings shortly before they were made public. "We will continue to strongly respond to the end to any attempt of regime-change and pressure under the pretext of 'human rights protection'," it said a statement sent to Reuters.
The 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, according to the investigators, led by Kirby, a retired justice of the High Court of Australia.
"It is open to inference that the officials are, in some instances, acting under your personal control," Kirby wrote in the three-page letter to Kim published as part of the report.
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 that it had compiled a database of suspects from evidence and testimony.
Pyongyang has used food as "a means of control over the population" and "deliberate starvation" to punish political and ordinary prisoners, according to the team of 12 investigators.
Pervasive state surveillance quashed all dissent. Christians were persecuted and women faced blatant discrimination. People were sent to prison camps without hope of release.
The investigators were not able to confirm allegations of "gruesome medical testing of biological and chemical weapons" on disabled people and political prisoners, but said they wanted to investigate further.
North Korea's extermination of political prisoners over the past five decades might amount to genocide, the report said, although the legal definition of genocide normally refers to the killing of large parts of a national, ethnic or religious group.
North Korean migrants and defectors returned by China regularly faced torture, detention, summary execution and forced abortion, said the report.
Kirby warned China's charge d'affaires in Geneva Wu Haitao in a Dec 16 letter that the forced repatriations might amount to "the aiding and abetting (of) crimes against humanity", it said.
Wu, in a reply also published in the report, said that the fact that some of the illegal North Korean migrants regularly managed to get back into China after their return showed that the allegations of torture were not true.
"The DPRK (North Korea) has been looked at by the Security Council solely as a nuclear proliferation issue," Julie de Rivero of campaign group Human Rights Watch told Reuters.
"This (report) is putting human rights in the DPRK on the map, which it wasn't before, and hopefully will put the spotlight on the U.N. and international community to respond to not just the security threat," she added. (Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Heavens)
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