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(Seoul) – January 8 celebrations planned for the 33rd birthday of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un only spotlight the daily reality of terrible human rights abuses North Koreans face, Human Rights Watch said today. The annual celebrations are filled with obligatory songs, dances, and praise for the Kim family’s notoriously brutal rule.

“Kim Jong-Un rules based on fear and repression, just like his father and grandfather, and no amount of birthday-related propaganda is going to change that fact,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The suffering of the North Korean people needs to stop, and the best way for that to happen is to hold Kim Jong-Un and other senior leaders accountable for the abuses they have inflicted on the people.”

North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un inspects Galido outpost and Jangjedo defending force located in the far south of Southwest sea in North Korea. © 2016 Reuters/Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)

Kim Jong-Un’s continued power depends on ensuring obedience, based on fear of the government and its security forces.

In July 2016, Thae Yong-Ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, sought asylum in South Korea, citing Kim Jong-Un’s “tyrannical rule of terror” and his treatment of North Koreans as slaves. North Koreans are frequently asked to do unpaid work for government offices, the ruling Workers Party of Korea, schools and universities, and state-own enterprises. North Koreans told Human Rights Watch virtually all North Koreans, including children, face demands for forced labor.

During the five years of his rule, Kim Jong-Un has tightened controls of the people through its borders, increased efforts to restrict expression and prevent outside information from entering the country, and increased its use of pervasive forced labor to sustain the North Korean economy. North Koreans who escaped the country between 2013 and 2015, or who have current contacts in North Korea, tell Human Rights Watch that although market crackdowns decreased and the economy opened to China, illegal border crossing has become almost impossible, corrupt practices have become normalized, and government demands for unpaid labor are on the rise.
Kim Jong-Un rules based on fear and repression, just like his father and grandfather, and no amount of birthday-related propaganda is going to change that fact.
Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

In his New Year’s speech for 2017, Kim Jong-Un stated, “As I am standing here to proclaim the beginning of another year, I feel a surge of anxiety about what I should do to hold our people in greater reverence…” He added, “I am hardening my resolve to seek more tasks for the sake of the people this year and make redoubled, devoted efforts to this end.”

“If Kim Jong-Un intends to fulfill his pledges, he should end his government’s predatory policies that rely on intimidating, extorting, and abusing the North Korean people, and systematically suppressing all basic rights,” Robertson said.

When Kim Jong-Un first took power in December 2011, some observers expressed the view that a young leader, educated in Europe, could possibly reform North Korea. Those hopes have been dashed by the deepening repression under his rule.

In February 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in North Korea found that systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations were committed “pursuant to policies at the highest level of the state.” Abuses included murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortion, and other forms of sexual violence, which constituted crimes against humanity. The COI, as well as the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly, recommended the UN Security Council to take action to bring accountability, possibly by referring North Korean leaders to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In line with this call, Kim Jong-Un could face a future referral to the ICC for rights crimes he has presided over during his rule. In December 2016, the Security Council took up, for the third year in a row, human rights abuses in North Korea as a threat to international peace and security. The General Assembly passed a resolution condemning North Korea’s rights records by consensus.

“The international community has a responsibility to help the North Korean people by stopping Kim Jong-Un’s continued brutality and repression,” Robertson said. “Pursuing accountability for rights abuses is really the only way forward to achieve justice for the victims of crimes against humanity committed by the North Korean government.”

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