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The Associated Press
Wang Min, the People's Republic of China deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, addresses a UN Security Council meeting Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015, at UN headquarters in New York, on the situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The council discussed the human rights situation in North Korea despite objections from China, an ally of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who, according to state media, today claimed the country is able to build both atomic and hydrogen bombs. (United Nations photo via AP)

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. human rights chief has told the Security Council it is "essential" that the council refer North Korea's bleak human rights situation to the International Criminal Court, a proposition that the reclusive country views with alarm.

Zeid Raad al-Hussein spoke Thursday after China tried to keep the meeting from happening. China, North Korea's neighbor and a traditional ally, demanded a rare vote on whether to discuss the issue, saying the council is not the place to discuss human rights.

Russia, Venezuela and Angola backed China, but the United States and eight other countries voted to go forward. Nigeria and Chad abstained.

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, the current council president, replied to the objections with an incredulous "Really?" And without mentioning China by name, she called for an end to the practice of sending North Korean refugees back to their country, where they can face imprisonment and torture.

The council put North Korea's rights situation on its agenda a year ago, and this was its second meeting on the issue. The council took up the issue after a U.N. report, based on interviews with scores of defectors, detailed widespread government abuses such as mass starvation.

The U.N. report also recommended a referral to the ICC, an idea that 112 countries supported last month in a vote in the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee. The assembly itself is expected to vote on the non-binding resolution next week.

North Korea rejects criticism of its human rights record, but in September its foreign minister extended an unprecedented invitation to Zeid to visit the country.

Zeid told reporters after Thursday's meeting that he hopes to go to North Korea "in the near future" and that discussions on the details continue.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last month that he will try to visit North Korea "at the earliest possible date" in an effort to promote peace on the Korean peninsula. Zeid said Thursday that "mine is a separate invitation."