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(Seoul) – On the third anniversary of his death, former North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il should be remembered for presiding over systematic crimes against humanity against his own people, including a catastrophic famine, Human Rights Watch said today. Kim Jong-Il held power for a total of 17 years as head of one of the most closed and repressive governments in the world.

“Kim Jong-Il ruled by severely punishing dissent, and using the fear instilled by his brutality to keep the population silenced, even as they were starving to death,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director. “Sadly, Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s new supreme leader and son of Kim Jong-Il, is closely following in his father’s footsteps.”

Kim Jong-Il presided over economic mismanagement worsened by natural disasters that led to a severe famine, known as the Arduous March, that provoked massive starvation and despair in North Korea. The North Korean government proved incapable of curtailing the disaster and focused on ensuring regime survival through its songun (military first) policy that, among other things, prioritized the Korean People’s Army in receiving food and other scarce supplies. Kim Jong-Il ensured the military and government elites survived while a still unknown number of North Koreans, estimated from several hundreds of thousands up to 3.5 million, died of starvation between 1994 and 1998, the most acute phase of the crisis.

Kim Jong-Il’s legacy also includes the deaths of tens of thousands in political prison camps, known as kwanliso. Today, between 80,000 and 120,000 North Koreans are estimated to still be in kwanliso, dying in conditions of torture and abuse by guards, living on near-starvation rations, and facing back-breaking forced labor in dangerous conditions. North Korea practices collective punishment by sending not only those accused of political crimes to the kwanliso, but also their entire extended family, former prisoners who escaped North Korea told Human Rights Watch.

Rather than daring to challenge Kim Jong-Il, tens of thousands of North Koreans fled the country during his almost two decades of rule. But leaving the country without official permission is considered an act of treason, and those who were caught were returned to face abuse and forced labor in prison camps. Since taking power, Kim Jong-Un has greatly heightened surveillance and control on the border of North Korea and China, and has severely punished those trying to flee. Nevertheless, hundreds continue to risk their lives every year to escape.

In February 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry found that the North Korean government, under the rule of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un, committed systematic human right abuses that the UN described as being without parallel in the contemporary world. Abuses documented by the commission’s investigators included extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. In March, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution supporting the findings, and in November, the third committee of the UN General Assembly followed suit by a resounding 111 to 19 vote, with 55 abstentions. Those resolutions called for the UN Security Council to take action to ensure international accountability for crimes against humanity committed by successive North Korea governments, possibly by referring North Korea leaders to the International Criminal Court. Later this week the UN General Assembly will meet in plenary and is expected to endorse the vote of the third committee, while the UN Security Council for the first time is expected to debate the human rights situation in North Korea before the end of the year.

“It’s long overdue but Kim Jong-Il and his government’s horrific record of rights abuse is finally at center stage of the international community’s agenda,” Robertson said. “But Pyongyang’s exuberant commemoration of the third anniversary of Kim’s passing demonstrates the depths of North Korea’s defiance of its human rights obligations, and shows why governments around the world need to redouble their efforts to ensure justice for their actions.”

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