North Korea: Grim Birthday Legacy

News and Press Release
Originally published

Kim Il-Sung’s Rights Crimes Remembered

(Seoul, April 14, 2015) – Kim Il-Sung should be remembered as North Koreans mark his birthday on April 15, 2015, for creating a state characterized by rights violations and crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said today. During his 46 years of rule, Kim established an authoritarian government that annihilated civil and political rights, purged and persecuted dissidents, and created a personality cult that compelled absolute obedience to him.

“Kim Il-Sung based his rule on ruthless rights abuses, repression of independent voices, and economic and social controls that led to deprivation and ultimately widespread starvation,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “His grandson Kim Jong-un, the current leader of North Korea, continues to follow those rights-abusing policies, and should be called before the International Criminal Court to answer for these crimes.”

Kim Il-Sung ruled the country from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994. His system of dictatorial, one-party government punished real or perceived dissent with a brutal state security system supported by an extensive network of informants. By the early 1960s, he achieved unchallengeable power through a series of purges against opposing political factions in the ruling Workers Party of Korea. The purges included public executions and enforced disappearances of perceived disloyal dissenters and their entire extended families to a secret system of political prisoner camps.

Kim Il-Sung created a vast gulag of brutal and abusive penal and forced labor institutions, which included long-term penal labor camps (kwanliso or kyohwaso) and shorter-term detention facilities. (jipkyulso). Those held in the kwanliso, fenced and heavily guarded colonies in mountainous areas, were forced to perform back-breaking labor such as logging, mining, and agriculture. Most were held for life, and faced systematic abuses and often deadly conditions, including near-starvation, virtually no medical care, lack of proper housing and clothes, regular mistreatment and torture by guards, and executions. Kyohwaso (reeducation centers) were created for those accused of political, criminal, or economic offenses and sentenced to fixed terms. These centers were known for forced labor, food and medicine shortages, and regular mistreatment by guards. Jipkyulso (collective centers for shorter-term sentences for minor offenses) are forced labor brigades.

The total stifling of political and civil rights in North Korea is another legacy of Kim Il-Sung, who quashed freedom of expression and opinion, and prohibited independent media, free trade unions, and independent organizations. He developed a cult mentality among North Koreans by demanding absolute loyalty to the state and to himself, pioneered mechanisms to maintain control over the population, and promoted the “Juche” ideology of self-reliance and extreme nationalism. The ideology viewed the North Korean people as “a body” that must follow orders from Kim, the supposed “great leader” and “the brain,” whose decisions and orders were conveyed through the Korean Workers Party, the “nervous system.”

In February 2014, a Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in North Korea appointed by the UN Human Rights Council wrote the North Korean government “does not content itself with ensuring the authoritarian rule of a small group of people, but seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within.” The commission found that “the keystone to the political system is the vast political and security apparatus that strategically uses surveillance, coercion, fear, and punishment to preclude the expression of any dissent. Public executions and enforced disappearance to political prison camps serve as the ultimate means to terrorize the population into submission.” The commission concluded that the gravity, scale, and nature of the human rights violations in North Korea are “without parallel in the contemporary world” and called for referring North Korea’s crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court for investigation and possible prosecution.

Kim Il-Sung’s rights-abusing legacy also includes 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 family’s political, social, and economic background. Songbun was used to decide all aspects of a person’s existence in North Korean society, including access to education, housing and employment, food rationing, ability to join the ruling party, or where they would be allowed to live. Large numbers of people from the so-called hostile class were forcibly relocated to the country’s isolated and impoverished mountainous northern region. When years of famine ravaged the country in the 1990s, people who suffered political discrimination were hardest hit.

“While celebrations occur in Pyongyang, the world should remember the truly horrific human rights legacy of Kim Il-Sung and his government, which the UN found is among the worst in the contemporary world,” Robertson said. “On Kim Il-Sung’s birthday, governments around the world should demand an end to the abuses in North Korea, and re-dedicate themselves to ensuring that those alive today who are responsible for these crimes against humanity will be held accountable.”

Human Rights Watch
© Copyright, Human Rights Watch - 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor New York, NY 10118-3299 USA