(Seoul) – North Korea’s decision to celebrate late leader Kim Jong-Il’s birthday on February 16, 2016, with a satellite launch should not distract the international community from the regime’s extensive abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. Instead, the international community and the United Nations should focus on steps to bring the Kim family to account for the grave violations and crimes against humanity they have inflicted on the North Korean people.

No one should forget that dictator Kim Jong-Il presided over one of the world’s most repressive and abusive governments in the world, ruling by fear and prioritizing power at all costs, even when his people were starving.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Director, Asia Division

“No one should forget that dictator Kim Jong-Il presided over one of the world’s most repressive and abusive governments in the world, ruling by fear and prioritizing power at all costs, even when his people were starving,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The only worthy commemoration of Kim Jong-Il’s legacy would be for his son, current leader Kim Jong-Un, to immediately halt ongoing abuses and provide reparations to all victims.”

Kim Jong-Il ruled North Korea for 17 years following the 1994 death of his father, Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Kim Jong-Un succeeded Kim Jong-Il as leader of North Korea after his father’s death in 2011.

Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il looks at his youngest son Kim Jong-un as they watch a parade to commemorate the 65th anniversary of founding of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang on October 10, 2010. 

Kim Jong-Il developed and entrenched many of the state policies that have provided the environment for rights abuses, including the “Supreme Leader,” or suryoung, system that gives absolute power over the state, party, and military, and the “Military First,” or songun, policy, which assured the military the lion’s share of the scarce resources and food in the country. Military and government elites were least affected when North Korea’s government-run food distribution system collapsed between 1993 and 1995. 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 that later became known as the Arduous March. The Military First policy continues under Kim Jong-Un.

Kim Jong-Il’s rights-abusing legacy also included strictly limiting people’s access to information, and restricting freedom of movement despite the deadly onset of starvation during the Arduous March period. Kim Jong-Il also maintained a massive system of political prison camps, or kwanliso, 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. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans fled the country during his rule, but many of those who were caught faced abuse, torture, and forced labor in prison camps – leaving the country without official permission is considered a serious crime. Kim Jong-Un has continued his father’s policy and further tightened surveillance and control on the border with China. Persons caught trying to flee, particularly those seeking to go to South Korea, and persons aiding them in that flight are subjected to harsh punishments if caught.

“In the case of Kim Jong-Un, the fruit has not fallen very far from the tree in terms of repressive rule,” said Robertson. “Instead of celebrating his father’s birthday, the country should be mourning the human catastrophes the Kim family has spawned.”

A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry established by the UN Human Rights Council found that the gravity, scale, and nature of violations in North Korea reveal state abuses without parallel in the contemporary world – including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence.

The commission concluded that, “the state seeks to ensure that its citizens internalize this guiding ideology by indoctrinating citizens from childhood, suppressing all political and religious expression that questions the official ideology, and tightly controlling citizens’ physical movement and their means of communication with each other and with those in other countries.”

For the second year in a row, the UN Security Council has recognized that in addition to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, the devastating human rights situation in North Korea constitutes a threat to international peace and security. On December 10, 2015, the UN Security Council formally debated the human rights situation in North Korea as a threat to international peace and security with many states expressing support to refer the leaders responsible for crimes against humanity in North Korea to the International Criminal Court. North Korea’s rights record was also strongly condemned by both the UN Human Rights Council in March and the UN General Assembly in December, through resolutions that were adopted by overwhelming majorities.

“Now that North Korea’s rights-abusing record is in the spotlight of the international community, the world should demand an end to impunity in Pyongyang,” Robertson said. “This is the year to bring justice to victims of decades of rights abuses under the rule of Kim Jong-Un and his family.”