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North Korea: Kim Il-Sung’s Catastrophic Rights Legacy

End Ongoing Discrimination, Abductions and Enforced Disappearances

(Seoul) – As North Korea prepares to celebrate the birthday of the country’s late founder and perpetual president, Kim Il-Sung, on April 15, the world should urgently demand an end to the systematic and pervasive human rights abuses taking place today in North Korea, Human Rights Watch said today. Kim Il-Sung’s birthday is known as the “Day of the Sun” and is the most important national holiday of the year in North Korea, traditionally celebrated with events throughout April which include song and dance performances, athletic competitions, exhibitions, firework displays, and paying respect to the ubiquitous monuments to Kim Il-Sung.

“Kim Il-Sung’s rule was based on ruthless rights abuses, including frequent use of enforced disappearances and deadly prison camps to inflict fear and repress any voices challenging his rule,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The man is dead, but his brainwashing and horrific abuses live on. Kim Jong-Un is following right along in his grandfather’s footsteps.”

Kim Il-sung, founder of North Korea, chats with his son Kim Jong-il at a mass rally to celebrate foundation of the communist country in Pyongyang in this September 1983 photo.  © 1983 Reuters

Kim Il-Sung established an authoritarian government that crushed dissent, abducted foreign nationals from South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere, and disappeared hundreds of thousands into a hidden system of remote gulag work-camps from which few ever returned. Kim also developed a cult of personality by demanding absolute loyalty to him as the embodiment of the state, and systematically eradicated independent media, free trade unions, and any other sort of independent organizations in North Korea.

Kim Il-Sung ruled North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994. During his rise and consolidation of power, Kim created the songbun system, which divided the North Korean people into three groups. Each person was classified as belonging to “core,” “wavering,” or “hostile” classes, based on their political, social, and economic background – a system that persists today. Songbun was used to decide all aspects of a person’s existence in North Korean society, including access to education, housing, employment, food rationing, ability to join the ruling party, and even where a person was allowed to live. Large numbers of people from the so-called hostile class, which included intellectuals, land owners, and former supporters of Japan’s occupying government during World War II, were forcibly relocated to the country’s isolated and impoverished northern provinces. When years of famine ravaged the country in the 1990s, those people living in marginalized and remote communities in the north were hardest hit.

The only gift the international community should present at Kim Il-Sung’s birthday remembrance is a crimes against humanity referral to the International Criminal Court for his grandson, Kim Jong-Un. While Kim Il-Sung lies in his grave, his legacy of abuses lives on.
Phil Robertson

Deputy Director, Asia Division

Kim Il-Sung punished real and perceived dissent through purges that included public executions and enforced disappearances. Not only dissenters but their entire extended families would be reclassified to the lowest songbun rank, and many were relocated to a secret system of political prisoner camps. These camps [kwanliso], part of Kim’s vast network of abusive penal and forced labor institutions, were fenced and heavily guarded colonies in mountainous areas, where prisoners were forced to perform back-breaking labor such as logging, mining, and picking crops. Most were held for life, and faced often deadly conditions, including near-starvation, virtually no medical care, lack of proper housing and clothes, sexual violence, regular mistreatment and torture by guards, and executions.

North Koreans who have left the country within the last two years told Human Rights Watch that even now, friends, neighbors, and family members can still disappear at any time, with those close to them never knowing what happened.

The North Korean government’s practice of abducting foreign nationals, such as South Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Thais, and Romanians, is another rights abuse of Kim Il-Sung which persists into the present. Kim Il-Sung planned these operations to seize persons who could be used to support North Korea’s overseas intelligence operations, or those who had technical skills to maintain the socialist state’s economic infrastructure in farms, construction, hospitals, and heavy industry. According to the Korean War Abductees Family Union (KWAFU), those abducted by North Korea after the war included 2,919 civil servants, 1,613 police, 190 judicial officers and lawyers, and 424 medical practitioners. In the hijacking and seizure of Korean Airlines flight YS-11 in 1969 by North Korean agents, the pilots and mechanics, and others with specialized skills, were the only ones never permitted to return to South Korea. The total number of foreign abductees and disappeared is still unknown, but is estimated to include more than 200,000 people. The vast majority of disappearances occurred or were linked to the Korean War, but hundreds of South Koreans and Japanese people were abducted during the 1960s and 1980s. A number of South Koreans and nationals of the People’s Republic of China have also been apparently abducted in the last decade. At least 100,000 people remain disappeared.

A 2014 Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council found that the North Korean government strategically uses “surveillance, coercion, fear and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent.” It further stated that “public executions and enforced disappearance to political prison camps serve as the ultimate means to terrorize the population into submission. The state’s violence has been externalized through state-sponsored abductions and enforced disappearances of people from other nations.” The commission concluded that violation of human rights committed by the North Korean government rose to the level of crimes against humanity and called for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court for investigation and possible prosecution. China, a long-time ally of North Korea, is seen as the main obstacle to obtaining such a referral, but relations have grown more strained in recent years.

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the UN General Assembly have endorsed these findings and repeatedly passed resolutions condemning the human rights situation in North Korea. For two years in a row, the UN Security Council has recognized the gravity of the situation by addressing North Korea’s bleak human rights record as a formal item on its agenda. In March 2016, the UNHRC adopted a resolution on North Korea which authorized the creation of a group of experts tasked with finding practical ways to hold rights violators in North Korea to account pending such a referral to the International Criminal Court. The new panel of experts will be authorized to develop and propose a more comprehensive response to the council.

“The only gift the international community should present at Kim Il-Sung’s birthday remembrance is a crimes against humanity referral to the International Criminal Court for his grandson, Kim Jong-Un,” Robertson said. “While Kim Il-Sung lies in his grave, his legacy of abuses lives on.” 

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