North Korea: Abusive Rule 10 Years after Kim Jong Il

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Then North Korea leader Kim Jong Il, left, and his son and now leader, Kim Jong Un, attend a military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, in Pyongyang, North Korea, October 10, 2010.
© 2010 Kyodo News via AP, File

(Seoul) – The 10th anniversary of the death of North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Il should focus global attention on the brutal rule of his son Kim Jong Un, Human Rights Watch said today. Kim Jong Il died on December 17, 2011.

During the 10 years since his father’s death, Kim Jong Un has expanded invasive surveillance and repression of North Koreans, denied people their freedom of movement within the country and across borders, and responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with heightened food insecurity that threatens widespread starvation.

“Kim Jong Il’s legacy is the deaths of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of North Koreans in the 1990s,” said Lina Yoon, senior Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Just like those of his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un’s rule is based on brutality, fear, and repression, instigating systematic rights violations, economic hardship, and possible famine.”

Kim Jong Il took over as leader of North Korea in 1994, after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its support for North Korea in 1991, Kim Jong Il presided over the disastrous “Arduous March.” That episode killed massive numbers of people through mismanagement of an already ill-equipped economy, combined with droughts and floods that severely hurt the harvest, and brutal policies that steered scarce food to the military and government elites. A massive number of people died, with estimates of deaths ranging from hundreds of thousands to more than 2.5 to 3 million between 1994 and 1998.

Kim Jong Il’s abusive legacy also included strictly limiting access to information and restricting freedom of movement during the famine’s deadly onset in the Arduous March period. Despite restrictions, tens of thousands of North Koreans managed to flee the country during Kim Jong Il’s rule.

North Koreans who left the country after 2014, or still have contacts inside, told Human Rights Watch that while Kim Jong Un opened up the economy and decreased major crackdowns on traders’ markets, illegal border crossings became almost impossible, corrupt practices were normalized, and government “requests” for unpaid labor rose. These forced labor demands increased after 2017, following implementation of security related general economic sanctions by the United Nations Security Council.

Under the pretext of protecting the population against Covid-19, Kim Jong Un has isolated the country more than ever. He imposed unnecessary and extreme measures that far exceed the impact of the Security Council sanctions, including blocking almost all unofficial and official trade, increasing surveillance to prevent information or people from entering or leaving the country, using forced labor to build up the economy, and creating an artificial food and humanitarian crisis.

“Like his father, Kim Jong Un is prioritizing tightening his already firm grip on power at the expense of the rights and well-being of the people,” Yoon said. “Governments around the world should convince North Korea to accept closely monitored humanitarian aid, allow international aid workers into the country, and press for justice for victims of the government’s crimes against humanity.”

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