(CNN) -- The International Criminal Court has opened a probe into the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last month and the March sinking of a South Korean warship, allegedly by a North Korean submarine, to evaluate if the incidents constitute war crimes, the court said Monday.
"The office of the prosecutor has received communications alleging that North Korean forces committed war crimes in the territory of the Republic of Korea," the court said in a written statement. "The prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, confirmed that the office has opened a preliminary examination."
A preliminary investigation will determine if the criteria are met for opening an investigation under the Rome Statute, the court said. That statute set up the court and governs it.
North Korean forces launched an artillery barrage that killed four people on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island on November 23. Pyongyang accused the South of provoking the attack, which also injured 18 people, because shells from a South Korean military drill landed in Northern waters.
In March, 46 South Korean sailors died when the warship Cheonan sank in the Yellow Sea. South Korea, as well as an international investigation conducted by South Korea, U.S., Swedish, British and Australian officials, have blamed a North Korean torpedo for sinking the ship. North Korea has denied culpability.
The International Criminal Court, located in The Hague, Netherlands, has had jurisdiction over "war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide" committed on South Korean territory since 2003, the statement said.
South Korea is a signatory of the Rome Statute and has been a party since November 2002, although it did not take effect in South Korea until February 2003, the court said. North Korea is not a party to the treaty; neither is the United States.
The court investigates and prosecutes those accused of crimes including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Other preliminary investigations are being conducted into situations in Afghanistan, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Georgia, Honduras, Nigeria and the Palestinian territory, the court said. Investigations are taking place into situations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Northern Uganda, Sudan's Darfur region, the Central African Republic and Kenya.
It is unclear what might happen if the court decides prosecution is warranted. The ICC has no police force and relies on countries who are party to the Rome Statute to turn suspects in.
In March 2009, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur in western Sudan. However, al-Bashir has thus far managed to evade custody. Several ICC signatory countries have not cooperated in arresting him. The African Union has warned against his arrest, claiming it will destabilize Sudan.
Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, a former vice president in the Democratic Republic of Congo, went on trial last month in the ICC. Prosecutors allege Bemba led a militia in attacks on civilians in the Central African Republic between October 2002 and March 2003.