The International Criminal Court began a preliminary study into whether North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island last month and alleged torpedoing of a South Korean naval ship in March constitute war crimes.
The Seoul government welcomed the decision, vowing full cooperation.
“The office of the prosecutor has received communications alleging that North Korean forces committed war crimes in the territory of the Republic of Korea,” prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said in a press release Monday.
“The office has opened a preliminary examination to evaluate if the two incidents constitute war crimes under the jurisdiction of the ICC.”
The Hague-based ICC specified the incidents ― the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23 that killed two South Korean marines and two civilians and injured many others; and the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, by a torpedo allegedly fired from a North Korean submarine on March 26, which killed 46 sailors.
“We welcome the ICC’s decision to examine the attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island,” a senior South Korean government official said Tuesday.
“The government won’t directly interfere with the study, but is obliged to cooperate as a state party to the ICC. It is the government’s basic position, as a nation directly damaged by the two incidents, to fully collaborate by providing necessary information.”
The Seoul government had considered taking the cases to the ICC, but did not file the “communications” with the court, a Foreign Ministry official said.
A civic group here accused North Korean leader Kim Jong-il of a war crime for sinking the Cheonan in a suit filed to the ICC in June, and said in a press conference last week that it would press charges against Kim and his son Jong-un over the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island.
South Korea is a state party to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC on Nov. 13, 2002. The ICC has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide possibly committed on the territory of South Korea or by its nationals since Feb. 1, 2003, the date on which the Statute came into force in Korea.
The Office of the Prosecutor is mandated by the statute to conduct preliminary examinations for the purpose of determining if the Rome Statute criteria for opening an investigation are met.
Article 8 of the Rome Statute stipulates “intentionally directing attacks against civilian population or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities” as war crimes.
Once the ICC decides to formally investigate the cases, it will focus on collecting enough evidence and testimony for indictment. It could issue arrest warrants for key suspects, although it is unlikely to succeed in arresting them.
The ICC has so far indicted those responsible for the ethnic cleansing and massacres in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Northern Uganda, the Darfur region of Sudan, the Central African Republic and Kenya.
The ICC is an independent, permanent court that investigates and prosecutes persons accused of the most serious crimes of international concern, namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes if national authorities with jurisdiction are unwilling or unable to do so.
By Kim So-hyun (firstname.lastname@example.org)