North Korean leader Kim Jong Un holds binoculars as he guides a live-firing exercise in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on July 15, 2014.

© 2014 Reuters

(Seoul) – Birthday celebrations planned on January 8 for North Korea’s dynastic supreme leader Kim Jong-Un contrast sharply with severe human rights violations throughout the country, Human Rights Watch said today. During the three years of his rule, Kim Jong-Un has escalated surveillance and control on borders to prevent North Koreans from fleeing and to stop outside information entering the country. Kim has continued a policy of systematic interrogation and torture of North Koreans caught trying to flee.

“Kim Jong-Un picked up where his father and grandfather left off, continuing to rule based on repression and fear,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “North Korean victims who have fled have let the world know the gravity of rights crimes committed by the government, so now Kim Jong-Un is redoubling efforts to silence and punish those trying to leave.”

Kim Jong-Un studied in Switzerland for at least three years when he was a teenager, so when he took power, some observers speculated he might allow reforms. Yet North Koreans told Human Rights Watch that under Kim Jong-Un repression has intensified, control over borders has tightened up, and domestic movement to the border areas has become harder than ever. Leaving the country without official permission is considered an act of treason, and those who have been caught and returned from China face arrest, torture, and being sent to do forced labor in prison camps.

Execution and consignment of suspects and their families to labor prison camps perpetuate fear of the government. In November 2013, Kim Jong-Un publicly purged and executed his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, previously a top-level official in the government, in a move seen as consolidating his power and reinforcing that fear. The government publicly executes people on a regular basis for vague national security crimes, including “crimes against the state” and “crimes against the people,” as well as a range of nonviolent offenses such as fraud and smuggling if the authorities deem the offense as “extremely serious.”

The North Korean government has not released an official biography of Kim, so some basic facts of his early life are still shrouded in mystery. By some North Korean accounts, it is believed he was born January 8, 1983, but some South Korean authorities believe he was actually born in 1982. Reports say he studied near Bern in Switzerland in 1998 and 2000, and attended Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang from 2002 to 2007.

In February 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry established by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) found the North Korean government has committed systematic human right abuses on a scale and gravity without parallel in the contemporary world. Abuses include extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. In March, the HRC adopted a resolution supporting the findings. In December, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) followed suit by adopting another resolution with a resounding 116 to 20 vote, with 53 abstentions, and, on December 22, the UN Security Council debated the human rights situation in North Korea for the first time. The UNGA and HRC resolutions both 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 (ICC). In line with this call, Kim Jong-Un could face a future referral to the ICC for rights crimes he has presided over during his three years of rule.

“Justice for the crimes against humanity committed by the North Korean government is long overdue,” Robertson said. “The continued brutality of Kim Jong-Un’s rule has put to rest any fiction he might moderate the country’s repression. These systematic and pervasive human rights abuses are now, finally, at the center stage of the international community’s agenda for action.”