Will the Death of Kim Jong-il Improve Human Rights in North Korea?

As the world watched, tens of thousands of North Koreans lined up in the streets of Pyongyang, pounding their chests and wailing over the death of Kim Jong-il. Since his death, the possibility of a new North Korea and the future of human rights in the country remains one of the most pressing and daunting queries on the planet.


It has been almost two weeks since the world learned the news of Kim Jong-il’s death, but what will happen to North Korea without its “Dear Leader” is a subject of much speculation.

In the short period since the brutal and oppressive leader has been gone, activists across the globe have used this unique period of North Korean uncertainty to pressure the isolated country to dispose of its repressive policies and improve the plight of its citizens.

Monday, following the news of Kim Jong-il’s death, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning the widespread human rights violations that have been characteristic of North Korean rule since its inception.

The international body’s nonbinding resolution called for North Korea to put an end to “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” that disproportionally impact women, children and the elderly.

The same day, the European Union followed suit, calling on North Korea to halt the egregious practices that make the country easily one of the most oppressive countries known to mankind, reminiscent of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union.

Issues of human rights in North Korea have traditionally remained a secondary concern of the international community while more relevance has been devoted to hard power concerns, such as nuclear weapons. The death of Kim Jong-il has been no exception to this rule, as the political and security implications of succession and a new and inexperienced leader have been widely debated since then.

Nevertheless, many human rights activists are urging the international community to focus on the human rights situation in the nation.

“In all the talk about North Korea, let’s not forget human rights. It is by far the most oppressive nation in the world,” tweeted prominent New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof last Monday.

“North Korea is by far the most totalitarian and controlling state I’ve ever visited. Makes Syria look like a democracy,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and activist wrote earlier in the day.


North Korea is marred with grave problems that make it a “human rights hell on earth,” according to the executive director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth.

The government has virtually no respect for the social, political, civil, economic, or cultural rights of the North Korean populace, and every facet of life on the small peninsula is directly controlled through the command of the central government.

Religious and political freedoms are heavily restricted, and travel into and within the country- even for citizens- is closely monitored.

Furthermore, information from the outside world is barred from entering North Korea because their government censors all means of communication and information dissemination in the country, including news, television, and radio. Cell phones are also banned.

If nationals violate the strict laws, fall out of favor with North Korean elite, or attempt to speak out against the government, they are shipped to some of the most brutal labor camps the world has ever witnessed. Generations of children are forced to endure involuntary labor and prison sentences due the legacy of their “prisoner” parents.

North Korea’s labor camps have been compared to Adolph Hitler’s Auschwitz for their use of sheer brutality.

Earlier this year, it was reported by the human rights group Amnesty International that North Korea’s ruthless labor camps have actually expanded over the past decade. The agency projected that 200,000 people are now being held under excruciating circumstances: food rations are sparingly given to prisoners, keeping them starving; manual labor is brutally enforced; and public executions and torture are common.

“Hundreds of thousands of people exist with virtually no rights, treated essentially as slaves, in some of the worst circumstances we’ve documented in the last 50 years,” said Sam Zarifi of Amnesty International said in a statement concerning the death of Kim Jong-il.

Defectors of the North Korean regime tell human rights agencies that widespread torture and malnutrition are rampant realities at the camps, and argue that the camps literally work people to death. Non-imprisoned citizens’ lives hang on a thread, unable to fend for themselves or provide for their families, but too fearful to retaliate against the government.

Christians in North Korea also live in precarious conditions.

North Korea has held the title for worst Christian persecutor in the world for nine consecutive years in a row and Christians routinely face punishment, death, torture, imprisonment, and even more egregious human rights violations if discovered practicing their faith.

"Nowhere in the world is Christian persecution so fierce,” the Christian persecution organization Open Doors has said of North Korea.

Although the human rights record of North Korea has been extremely difficult to assess by international bodies due to the strict government restrictions on information and travel, the economic, social, and political policies under Kim Jong-il have been widely attributed to the deaths of thousands- perhaps even millions of citizens in the country.

“Kim Jong-il, like his father before him, left millions of North Koreans mired in poverty, without access to adequate food and healthcare, and with hundreds of thousands of people detained in brutal prison camps,” Mr. Zarifi said.

Now, with the death of Kim Jong-il, the question remains if the establishment of a new North Korean regime will curb the humanitarian crisis on the Korean peninsula and finally permit some of humanity’s most basic freedoms to reach the severely oppressed citizens of North Korea.


With a deep and entrenched history of oppression that taints both the government of North Korea and the international community, the question of what the future holds in terms of human rights in North Korea is of grave concern. However, without significant action, the prospects are bleak.

When the international community called for North Korea to change its human rights policies after Kim’s death, the country responded, arguing that the demands were politically motivated “fabrications” attempting to further pressure a nation strained by the sudden loss of its leader.

Some fear that North Korea’s response to international calls for action and its “staged” wailing over the death of their “Dear Leader” is indicative that the leadership apparatus in North Korea has no intentions of loosening its reigns on the current system.

The Christian Post turned to Dinah PoKempner, General Counsel at Human Rights Watch, to get her expert perspective on the bleak human rights situation in North Korea.

“We have absolutely no indication that the government is going to change its policy,” Ms. PoKempner told CP.

When asked about North Korea's labor camps, PoKempner told CP that labor camps should be first on the list of institutions to close in North Korea, arguing that the laws and policies that support forced labor camps should be immediately revised.

She also added, “There isn’t any reason right now to believe that this is even on the screen of the next Korean administration.”

Other experts have expressed similar sentiments and many believe that the next generation of North Koreans will be forced to endure the same oppression as their elders.

“In the coming decades, many more North Koreans will be lost to sex-trafficking, malnutrition, starvation, disease, torture, and execution,” wrote Joseph Hong, a former research and foreign policy officer at the human rights organization Liberty in North Korea.

In fact one of the only glimmers of hope in the country where people suffer from chronic food shortages, severe health concerns, state induced torture and starvation, is Kim Jong-il’s third son, successor, and heir, Kim Jong-un.

“The best hope for the future (of North Korea) is the Swiss education that Jong-un and his brothers got, giving them years of experience in a free Western country,” said Bruce Cuming, North Korea expert at of University of Chicago, according to The Hindu.

However, the possibility of Kim Jong-un transforming North Korea in the coming years without the country facing an immense political crisis is highly improbable. Furthermore, with little known about Kim Jong-un and his background, one can only speculate that his elite education could result in some positive changes for North Korea.

Additionally, North Korea has said that Kim will be following in his father’s footsteps, maintaining a “military-first” policy.

Regardless of what happens to North Korea in the coming years, the international community must not relent in the face of a continued North Korean humanitarian crisis. International doctrines such as the Responsibility to Protect call on the global leaders to protect people when a government is unable or unwilling to protect its own citizens.

“The key thing the international community has to do is to try to speak with one voice,” PoKempner said, “The progress on the human rights front is going to be key to opening many doors to ending international isolation and to renew diplomatic and aid engagement.”

Renewing diplomatic ties and reengaging with Western countries could save thousands of North Koreans from suffering the effects of even more human catastrophe and could potentially turn a new page in the history of North Korea and human rights.

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