The rumor mill around North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s health has been churning for weeks. Speculation first began on April 15, when Kim was absent during celebrations of his grandfather’s birthday, North Korea’s biggest holiday. The mystery, however, only highlights that North Korea is one of the most secretive countries in the world, with a population with little access to information, and no faith in the government’s statements.
North Korea’s dangerous and implausible claim that the country has no Covid-19 cases illustrates the government’s secretiveness, capacity for duplicity, and ability to force lies on its people. The government exercises almost complete control over the people and the information they can receive or transmit.
The government’s control is built, of course, on totalitarianism. Kim, like his father and grandfather, has presided over mass human rights abuses for years. As a 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea found, Kim and his leadership are implicated in a long series of gruesome crimes, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence … enforced disappearance… and knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
Against this brutal backdrop, the commission sensibly recommended the UN Security Council refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court—the only path to the court since North Korea is not one of its members. The recommendation remains fitting given the gravity and scale of continued crimes and abusive policies.
In 2015, the UN Human Rights Council set up an office to collect evidence of crimes on an ongoing basis, among other tasks. The office’s work is critical to preserve evidence that can be used, one day, to prosecute perpetrators of grave crimes in North Korea.
The rumors about Kim shouldn’t make us forget the need to bring him and the leadership to justice. The UN Security Council, which has debated about North Korea’s human rights record several times in recent years, needs to resume its scrutiny and act on the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations. It could start by passing a new resolution demanding North Korea at least improve its cooperation with the UN system – including the World Health Organization in the context of the Covid-19 crisis, but also with all UN human rights bodies. A closed country cannot be a stable or a healthy one.