UNITED NATIONS -- Despite intense lobbying by North Korea and its allies, a key committee of the U.N. General Assembly agreed to urge the Security Council to refer the leaders of North Korea to the International Criminal Court for prosecution for crimes against humanity and to reject an amendment that would have stripped the resolution of those provisions.
The cliff-hanger vote against the hostile amendment, proposed by Cuba, was supported by North Korea's allies: Cuba, China, Belarus, Ecuador, Venezuela, Russia, South Africa and Iran, among others. The final vote was 111 in favor of the action and 19 opposed, with 55 countries abstaining.
Elizabeth Cousens, U.S. Ambassador to the Economic and Social Council, said, "Human rights violations must stop and those responsible must be held responsible."
The European Union-Japan sponsored resolution was based on a U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, headed by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, which earlier in the year called for justice for "unspeakable atrocities."
It reported that 120,000 men, women and children were in the country's prison camps and said that the horror and intensity of the actions of North Korea, (known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, "DPRK") and its human rights record is "without parallel in the contemporary world."
The report documented state-sponsored abductions, forced labor, starvation, rape, forced abortion, infanticide, torture, and summary executions.
In a break from usual U.N. caution and diplomacy, the panel put North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un on notice that he could be held responsible.
Although the U.N. has known about grave human rights violations in North Korea for many years, the grim report by the independent commission created by the Human Rights Council details crimes committed against opponents of the North Korean regime.
In a letter published as part of of the 372-page report, Kirby wrote to Kim, "The Commission has found that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been, and are being, committed by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials."
Kirby goes on to say, "Any official of the Democratic People's Republic Korea who commits, orders, solicits or aids and abets crimes against humanity incurs criminal responsibility by international law and must be held accountable under that law."
Kirby said the letter made it clear that Kim could personally be held responsible.
The Resolution calls for targeted sanctions as well as for cooperation, but the two clauses that caused the most consternation in Pyongyang were those that suggested that Kim could be held accountable in a criminal court -- a remote possibility since it would be likely that China would veto any such resolution at the Security Council.
Diplomats told CBS News that the intensity of the lobbying was unparalleled and that a high-ranking Chinese diplomat paid a personal visit to the European Union office in New York to try to have the language toned down.
"The North Korea resolution was adopted by a clear majority, which is significant considering that this time the resolution includes an ICC referral reference for the first time in the U.N.'s human rights resolutions," South Korea's U.N. Ambassador Oh Joon told CBS News. "The fact that Cuba's amendment to take this new element out failed, reflects the willingness to bring the human rights debates in the U.N. to a new dimension, with the strengthened role of the international court."
Nine human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, called on U.N. member countries to support the resolution and reject the tamping down of the criminal provisions.
But fearing the possibility of criminal charges, the North Koreans produced their own account entitled "Report of the DPRK Association for Human Rights Studies," denying the accounts of political prisoners and touting North Korea's democracy, freedom of speech and press and women's rights.
The North Korea report also detailed U.S. human rights practices: "Evil acts of all kinds including medieval and decadent tortures are under way in the prisons.... The U.S. and other Western countries turn a blind eye to the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty, non-interference, trust and mutual benefits."
That language, in addition to the fear of being referred to a criminal court, appeared to have brought several countries to support North Korean objections to the resolution. Cuba drafted an amendment, which would have stripped the language, and Iran wrote its own letter to members of the nonaligned countries.
In an effort to improve its image globally, North Korea launched a "charm offensive," releasing three detained Americans and saying it is open to nuclear and reunification talks.
In a private meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations, North Korean U.N. Ambassador Jang Il Hun said his country wanted the language about referral to the ICC removed, and that any chance of gestures like allowing a visit by a U.N. special investigator or the International Committee of the Red Cross would depend on the vote's outcome.
Jang telegraphed a firm message that there will be "countermeasures" and that "dialogue will go nowhere" on nuclear talks and reunification of the Koreas if the U.N. moves forward on the proposal to refer North Korea and Kim to the Court.
"All we ask is we do not want the resolution to include any mention of the referral of the leadership of our country to the international criminal justice mechanism or bringing those responsible to justice -- it's simple," Jang said.
European Union U.N. spokesman Christopher Matthews told CBS News, "The resolution is informed by the findings and recommendations of the landmark report, which underlined the culture of impunity and lack of accountability for the perpetrators of human rights violations in the DPRK. Accordingly, this resolution, supported by the international community, encourages the U.N. Security Council to take appropriate action to ensure accountability."
"We will be watching to see what happens next," said a Western diplomat who supported the resolution. "They said countermeasures, so expect some response."