A United Nations report says senior North Korean officials should be brought before an international court for crimes against humanity that include exterminating, starving and enslaving its population.
(Transcript from World News Radio)
The report also accuses the North Korean government of denial of basic freedoms of thought, expression and religion, and abduction of citizens of neighbouring South Korea and Japan.
The 400-page report was prepared by a Commission of Inquiry on North Korea set up by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
It comes after a year-long investigation included hearing public testimony by defectors, including former prison camp guards, at hearings in South Korea, Japan, Britain and the United States.
Chairman of the inquiry, former Australian High Court judge Michael Kirby, says North Korean security chiefs and possibly even leader Kim Jong-un should face international justice for crimes against humanity.
"We indicated that he should be aware of this, he should be aware of the international crime of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, even if not himself involved in the actual perpetration of those crimes and we informed him that he himself may be responsible in any subsequent prosecution that occurs.
"And all of this is contained in the letter that is being sent with the authority of the Commission of Inquiry to Kim Jong-un informing him that that is a possibility that he must consider and that the international community must consider."
The North Korean government refused to co-operate in the investigation, and did not allow the inquiry team to visit.
Instead, the report is based on testimony from 320 North Korean exiles.
The report says political prison camps in the country are widespread and believed to hold up to 120,000 people.
The North Korean government denies the existence of the camps, but the report says this claim was disproved by testimony from former prisoners, guards, neighbours and satellite imagery.
Generations of whole families are believed to be held in the camps, and hundreds of thousands of people have reportedly died as a result of starvation, torture, forced labour, forced medical experiments and widespread executions.
Michael Kirby says the world can longer feign ignorance about what is happening in North Korea.
"At the end of the Second World War, so many people said 'If only we had known, if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces. If only we had known that.' Well now, the international community does know, the international community will know. There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn't know. We do know."
The report adds that for those outside the camps, public executions and the fear of imprisonment are a constant part of life.
It says daily life is marked by constant surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment, to suppress expression of any dissent.
Dr Leonid Petrov is an expert in Asian and African studies at the Australian National University.
He says after decades of secretive rule, the population of North Korea isn't sure what to believe any more.
"The country is traumatised. The population live on the verge of a state of mind where the population simply cannot distinguish reality from an imaginary state of things which the country and leadership tries to impose on people. And basically that's what the leadership of the Democratic People's Republic is trying to achieve to detach the population from reality and force them to live in an artificial world where the survival of the regime is the main purpose of the existence of North Korea."
Felix Patrikeeff is Associate Professor of International Politics at the University of Adelaide.
He says what to do next is a difficult proposition but he believes helping South Korea is important.
"One of the things that we can focus on more is to offer South Korea greater support in its initiative in actually negotiating and dealing with North Korea. We can encourage it to open up a broader conversation with that state, because clearly international voices don't count that much."
Dr Leonid Petrov from the ANU says North Korea is likely to ignore the UN report, a move that should prompt the international community to take a different approach.
"The issue of North Korean human rights has to be resolved in a holistic way, where an understanding of the context of the reasons of human right abuses is extremely important.
"We can't expect that North Korea unilaterally disarms. Equally we can't expect North Korea would improve human rights records without changing the atmosphere in the whole of North-East Asia. Inter-Korean relations are extremely important and at the moment there is simply no communication between Pyongyang and Seoul. Relations in North East Asia in general must be improved first before we expect that the North Koreans will humanely treat their people."
Korea was split in two at the end of the Second World War, and remained split after the Korean War in the early 1950s.
Since 1948 North Korea has been under the control of the communist Korean Workers Party, ruled by three generations of the same family.