Michael Kirby, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea holds a copy of his report during a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva on February 17, 2014.

(Seoul) – Dynastic North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un and senior members of his government should be held accountable for overseeing grave rights abuses and crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2015. The North Korean government denies basic freedoms in the country and operates a network of political prisons and forced labor camps that systematically brutalize and often result in the deaths of those the government accuses of crimes. 

“Kim Jong-Un’s power is built on the continued abuses inflicted on the North Korean people because he sits at the helm of a central government apparatus that uses public executions, extensive political prison camps, and brutal forced labor to maintain control,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “What’s changed is the international community has now finally recognized the need to bring him before an international tribunal to address those unspeakable crimes.”

In the 656-page world report, its 25th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth urges governments to recognize that human rights offer an effective moral guide in turbulent times, and that violating rights can spark or aggravate serious security challenges. The short-term gains of undermining core values of freedom and non-discrimination are rarely worth the long-term price.

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry found the North Korean government committed systematic human right abuses on a scale and gravity without parallel in the contemporary world – including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. In March, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution supporting the findings and, in November, the third committee of the UN General Assembly followed suit by approving a resolution resounding 111 to 19 vote, with 55 abstentions. On December 22, the entire UN General Assembly approved that resolution by a similarly lopsided vote.  

The North Korean government and the ruling Workers Party of Korea continue to practice collective punishment by sending an offender and three generations of his family to political prison camps, known as kwan-li-so. The living conditions are horrific and the abuses include induced starvation, lack of medical care, proper shelter and clothes, torture and abuse by guards, and forced labor in dangerous conditions.  

North Koreans sent back after being caught in China are systematically interrogated and tortured, former North Korean security officials told Human Rights Watch. Those found to know South Koreans faced being sent to a kwan-li-so, while others judged to be a lesser risk are send to penitentiaries (kyo-hwa-so) or other types of forced labor camps.  

In October, a North Korean United Nations diplomat publicly acknowledged that “reform through labor” centers exist in North Korea where “people are improved through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings.” But Pyongyang still denies kwan-li-so camps operate in the country. 

Despite the ratification of several core UN human rights treaties, North Korea systematically represses basic civil and political rights, such as freedom of association, assembly, and expression, and targets those involved in religious activities. Labor rights are also systematically suppressed. Despite being ruled by a party that claims to represent workers, North Korea is one of the few states in the world that refuses to join the International Labor Organization. Access to adequate food, medical care, education, and other services remains limited, especially for the majority of people who are not in the core “loyal” class under the government’s songbun classification system.  

“Now, at long last, the human rights crimes of the North Korean government are in the spotlight and no one can deny the horror North Koreans are experiencing,” Robertson said. “It’s time for justice for the North Korean people – meaning that governments around the world need to put human rights front and center in all their dealings with the rulers in Pyongyang.”