North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (front) visits the construction site of the Huichon Power Station in this undated picture released by North Korea's official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang on December 23, 2010. 

© Reuters / KCNA

(Seoul) – North Korea’s so-called dear leader, Kim Jong-Il, should be remembered as his country celebrates his birthday on February 16, 2015, for presiding over one of the world’s most brutal and repressive governments, Human Rights Watch said today. During his 17 years of rule, Kim presided over the country’s worst famine and oversaw systematic crimes against humanity against his own people.

“Kim Jong-Il ruled North Korea based on rights abuses, repression, and ruthlessness and prioritized maintaining his power over the welfare of the people, even as the country was facing widespread starvation,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Unfortunately, his son Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s new leader, has continued many of his father’s abusive policies without pause.”

Kim Jong-Il took over the country in 1994 after the death of his father, Kim Il-Sung, who had ruled North Korea since 1948. Kim Jong-Il inherited an impoverished country with harsh natural conditions that had recently lost its major source of economic aid when the country’s main supporter, the Soviet Union, fell in 1991. Soon after Kim Jong-Il took power, his economic mismanagement combined with natural disasters forced the country into what later became known as the Arduous March, a severe famine that provoked despair and massive starvation.

Kim Jong-Il and his government made survival of the government their priority, and focused on a policy of songun (military first), which allocated the country’s remaining scarce resources and food to the Korean People’s Army. Kim Jong-Il ensured that the military and government elites were least affected while a still unknown number of North Koreans – estimates range from several hundred thousand to 3.5 million – died of starvation between 1994 and 1998, the most acute phase of the crisis.

As China increased its influence as North Korea’s main international benefactor and informal markets emerged to replace the collapsed state distribution system, Kim Jong-Il started experimenting with economic liberalization in 2002 and allowed some markets to form. But fear that economic freedom was eroding his power led him to order a currency reform that ultimately wiped out most small traders’ private savings in late 2009, leading to despair and an exodus of North Koreans fleeing the country.

A United Nations Commission of Inquiry in February 2014 found that the violations in North Korea revealed a state without parallel in the contemporary world. The commission wrote:

The distribution of food has prioritized those who are useful to the survival of the current political system at the expense of those deemed to be expendable. Citizens’ complete dependency on the state led to one of the worst cases of famine in recent history. The authorities have only recently come to tolerate the fact that markets can no longer be fully suppressed. However, instead of fully embracing reforms to realize the right to food, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea maintains a system of inefficient economic production and discriminatory resource allocation that inevitably produces more unnecessary starvation among its citizens.”

"The commission further recommended that “in light of the past expenditures by the leadership, the military and security apparatus,” North Korea should “realign priorities and dedicate available resources, as necessary, to ensure freedom from hunger and other essential minimum standards for citizens.”

In March 2014, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution supporting the commission’s findings. In December, the UN General Assembly plenum endorsed the findings and the Security Council debated human rights in North Korea for the first time. In March 2015, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is expected to adopt another resolution supporting its 2014 resolution.

Throughout his rule, Kim Jong-Il remained shrouded in mystery. Foreign observers believe Kim Jong-Il was born in Siberia in 1941, when his father was in exile. Yet North Korea’s official accounts incredibly claim without independent evidence that he was born in 1942 at a cabin in a secret camp of anti-Japanese guerrillas commanded by his father on Paektu Mountain, a sacred place in Korean mythology. The North Korea government told the people that Kim Jong-Il’s birth was marked when a bright star shone in the sky and a double rainbow touched the earth. No detailed information is available about Kim Jong-Il’s upbringing, except that he graduated in 1964 from Kim Il-Sung University, North Korea’s most prestigious educational institution.

Kim Jong-Il’s rights-abusing legacy also includes limiting people’s access to information, and preventing their ability to travel and earn a living. He maintained a massive system of kwanliso (gulag-like political prison camps) to instill fear among the people. Between 80,000 and 120,000 North Koreans are estimated to still be in kwanliso, which are characterized by systemic abuse and deadly conditions, including torture and sexual abuse by guards, near-starvation rations, back-breaking forced labor in dangerous conditions, and executions. Working conditions at these sites are extremely difficult, including exposure to harsh weather, rudimentary tools, lack of safety equipment, and high risks of workplace accidents. Death rates in these camps are extremely high, political prison camp survivors told Human Rights Watch.

During Kim Jong-Il’s 17-year rule, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans fled the country. But leaving the country without official permission is considered a serious crime, and many of those who were caught faced abuse, torture, and forced labor in prison camps. Kim Jong-Un has greatly heightened surveillance and control on the border with China and enforced harsher punishments for those trying to go to South Korea and those aiding them.

“The world should remember Kim Jong-Il’s brutality and his government’s horrific record of rights abuse, which only now has finally reached the international community’s agenda,” Robertson said. “The world needs to show North Korea that these serious human rights abuses will not go unpunished, and that there needs to be justice for these actions.”