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(Seoul) – As North Korea prepares to commemorate the fifth anniversary of former North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il’s death on December 17, the world should redouble pressure for action against North Korea’s legacy of crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN General Assembly should act decisively on its opportunity to condemn these most severe rights violations in North Korea by adopting by consensus a resolution on North Korea human rights.

Soldiers walk under pictures of former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the capital's main ceremonial square after a mass rally and parade on May 10, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

“Kim Jong-Il’s rule should be remembered for its sheer brutality, repression, and ruthlessness – and especially for the deaths of millions from his misrule during the years of famine in the mid-1990s,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than honoring Kim Jong-Il on the 5th anniversary of his death, the North Korean people should demand that those responsible for crimes under his rule, and crimes that continue under the rule of his son Kim Jong Un, be brought before an international tribunal.”

Kim Jong-Il took over as leader of North Korea in 1994, after the death of his father Kim Il-Sung. Kim Jong-Il’s economic mismanagement and brutal policies led to a severe famine that killed millions of North Koreans and steered scarce food to the military and ruling party cadres instead.

Kim Jong-Il’s rights-abusing legacy also included strictly limiting access to information and attempting to restrict freedom of movement during the deadly onset of starvation in the multi-year famine known as the Arduous March. Despite these restrictions, tens of thousands of North Koreans managed to flee the country during his almost twenty years in power. However, Kim Jong-Il set out a clear policy that leaving the country without official permission was considered an act of treason. Those sent to prison camps after being caught trying to flee the country have been subjected to detention, torture, sexual abuse, and forced labor.

In February 2014, a UN Commission of Inquiry found that the North Korean government under the rule of the Kim family committed systematic human right abuses without parallel in the contemporary world, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. The commission recommended that the United Nations Security Council consider referral of the human rights situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and press for individual sanctions for those responsible for rights violations.

These recommendations were later endorsed by resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council and General Assembly, most recently in November 2016 when the Third Committee of the General Assembly passed its resolution on North Korea by consensus. In November, the UN Security Council also expressed deep concern for the suffering of North Koreans in a resolution condemning North Korea’s September 9 nuclear test. And on December 9, the Security Council discussed for a third year in a row the human rights situation in North Korea as a threat to international peace and security. 

Next week, the UN General Assembly will meet in plenary and is expected to endorse the vote of its Third Committee on a resolution condemning the continued systematic and pervasive abuse of human rights by North Korea.  

“Justice for victims of Kim Jong-Il and his government’s horrific record of rights is long overdue,” Robertson said. “Pyongyang’s predictably over-the-top celebrations of the fifth anniversary of Kim’s passing shows total disregard for its human rights obligations, while spotlighting the need for accountability for the appalling crimes the Kim Jong-Il family has perpetrated.”

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