by Aneil Sharma on 05 Oct 2011 | Comments
Conflicting Soviet and Korean records indicate that Kim was born on February 16th, in either 1941 or 1942, either in Russia or in a secret military camp in Japanese Korea. In any event, his official biographers claim that Kim’s birth was foretold by a swallow, and heralded by the appearance of a double rainbow over the mountains and a new star in the heavens. The son of Kim il-Sung, the Korean communist guerilla-politician who became the Eternal President of the Republic, Kim Jong-il followed in his father’s footsteps, developing a bizarre cult of personality, and brutally repressing the people of North Korea.
Kim graduated Kim il-Sung University in 1964, was groomed for leadership thereafter and was eventually designated successor to his father in 1980, though didn’t hold any positions of real power. In 1991 he took control of the armed forces despite his lack of military experience, and eventually took over leadership of the ruling Korean Worker’s Party in 1997 - three years after the death of his father.
Known for his almost comical personal style - platform shoes, khaki military outfits, sunglasses and that bouffant hairstyle - Kim’s eccentricities, which sadly are not limited to his personal style, mask either the cunning mind of a master manipulator, or betray an irrational madman, and in any event seem to serve the purpose of keeping the Western world guessing. Indeed whether a master manipulator, or an irrational madman, Kim Jong-il’s brutal repression of the North Korean people certainly warrants his place on the world’s most wanted list.
Kim’s regime is consistently ranked in every survey of freedom and human rights as the worst of the worst. Widespread violations of human rights are the norm, external monitoring agencies are severely restricted and aid workers face considerable scrutiny, ensuring that a fuller picture of one of the bleakest places on earth is extremely difficult to assess. Despite the lack of clarity on the country’s dire situation, it is clear that Kim’s government controls virtually all activities within the nation, with Kim ensuring that dissent of any kind is severely punished.
Public and secret executions, torture, disappearances, extra-judicial and arbitrary detention, a complete absence of due process and the rule of law, prison camps and the extensive use of forced labour are typical forms of punishment in North Korea. The death penalty is retained for a wide array of crimes, including, in one case from 2010, for divulging, via an illegal Chinese mobile phone, the price of rice as well as other information on living conditions in the country.
According to US State Department statistics, North Korea operates several political gulags, holding upwards of 200,000 prisoners who are forced to perform dangerous ‘slave’ work, whilst guards are trained to treat detainees as sub-human. In ‘re-education’ camps, prisoners deemed to have strayed too far from the Dear Leader’s wishes are subjected to show trials and brutal torture. Should they survive that, they are instructed ideologically and forced to memorize speeches of Kim il-sung and Kim Jong-il, as well as undergo self-criticism rites.
Freedom of thought, expression and assembly are practically non-existent despite their guarantee in the constitution. The government even distributes all television and radio sets, programming them so that only government broadcasts can be received. Citizens found altering them to receive programming from other nations are harshly punished. Freedom of movement is strictly curtailed; only the political elite may own or lease vehicles, and citizens cannot freely travel around the country, much less travel abroad. Defectors, if caught, are subjected to extreme punishments. In 2005, Lee who was eight months pregnant, escaped to China. She was caught by authorities and returned to North Korea. Weeks later, a soldier stood beside her prison bed and, moments after she had given birth, suffocated her baby boy.
Furthermore the government’s economic mismanagement and poor agricultural policies have contributed to significant food crises, even famine, resulting in the deaths of up to 1 million people in the late 1990s. The continuation of such policies, as well the North’s natural susceptibility to flooding and food shortages, has had a devastating impact on the population’s health, demonstrated by the large numbers of acutely malnourished women and children.
The human rights situation in North Korea is evidently exceptionally appalling, and is only compounded by Kim Jong-il’s isolationism, unpredictability and aggression on the international stage. Kim’s refusal to halt his nuclear weapons program, as well as his support of other countries’ nuclear aspirations has inevitably led to international opprobrium of his regime, as well as a dangerous regional security situation.
Fortunately, Kim Jong-il has few friends. However the ones he does have are incredibly and stubbornly loyal, and unfortunately very powerful, helping to ensure the long-term stability of Kim’s totalitarian regime. Kim visited China most recently in May 2011, marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance. In August this year, he visited Russia for talks with President Dimitry Medvedev. Whilst some argue that engagement with Kim is essential for maintaining a semblance of progress on the six-party talks aimed at finding peaceful resolutions to regional security concerns caused by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, it is nonetheless deplorable that two permanent members of the UN Security Council so openly support such a barbaric regime.
Perhaps the most cited example of the apparent conflict between peace and justice is Kim Jong-il. His unpredictability, possession of nuclear weapons, and apparent willingness to flout international rules to the detriment of the North Korean population have all helped to ensure Kim’s continued impunity. Of course, close ties with China and Russia virtually guarantee that any threatened ICC action would be vetoed, or at least deferred for as long as possible. However, on December 6th 2010 Luis Moreno-Ocampo announced that a preliminary examination had been opened by the ICC to determine whether the sinking of a South Korean warship, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by the North constituted war crimes.
What he says…
Rather predictably, the North Korean regime’s position is that it has no human rights issue and that its socialist system was chosen by the people and serves them faithfully. Furthermore it points to the the country’s constitution, which guarantees the protection of certain rights and freedoms. Criminal procedural law prohibits the mistreatment of detainees and so serves as conclusive evidence that allegations of human rights abuses in prison camps are complete fabrications of foreigners, designed only to interfere in the internal affairs of North Korea and force down their values. Unsurprisingly, the Dear Leader rarely speaks out in public, however in his speech-turned-book, serious concern at the persistence of continuing reports of systematic, widespread and grave violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, but has failed to act decisively on its findings, perpetuating, indeed exacerbating, the culture of impunity. North Korean rights groups have called for Kim to be investigated by the ICC for crimes against humanity. It would certainly seem as though Kim’s human rights violations are systematic and widespread, and certainly reach an extreme threshold. Whether the calls of these pressure groups will lead to firm and meaningful action on the part of the ICC and the international community remains to be seen. One cannot deny, however, that any such action seems increasingly unlikely in the near future.
Such pessimism regarding potential ICC action should not deter the international community from pursuing justice in North Korea. As a recent New York Times op-ed highlighted, engagement is an important tool in ending impunity, and to that end the international community must end its silence on the severe human rights abuses in the country, support efforts to get outside information into North Korea, and find ways to talk face-to-face with the regime and raise human rights concerns. Holding Kim to account for his crimes will certainly not be easy, if at all possible, and the recent moves towards naming his possible successor will only serve to increase the unpredictability, volatility and determination of the regime. However such obstacles should not negate the notion that significant progress towards alleviating the misery and suffering of millions can and must be made.
IJCentral’s Most Wanted is written by Aneil Sharma.
Aneil studied for his LLM in International Criminal Justice and Armed Conflict at University of Nottingham (2006) and recently graduated law school (2010), where he was also an editor of the students’ human rights law journal. He has done internships with Oxfam and The British Institute of International and Comparative Law in London and has completed casework for Amicus, who assist US lawyers on capital punishment cases. He intends to return to school to study for his PhD.
Follow Aneil on Twitter: @theSharmz