by Hibberd Kline
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia
PYONGYANG, North Korea – One week after Kim Jong-il’s death, the 69 year-old, ruthless dictator continues to hold the spotlight of world attention hostage from beyond the grave.
Speculation in the media and among foreign policy analysts as to the potential impact of Kim Jong-il’s death on North Korea’s future has run the gamut from detente to crackdown to collapse and back again. However, as the world struggles to discern a murky future it must not forget or ignore either the brutality of Kim’s reign or the continuing, horrific, human suffering in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Like his father before him, Kim Jong-il used the coercive power of the state to reach into and attempt to control nearly every aspect of the daily lives of Koreans living in the North. Any perceived threat to the dominance of the personality cult of the “dear leader” over the hearts and minds of the North Korean people was filtered out of public consumption and dealt with mercilessly. Under Kim’s direction, the DPRK’s political machine is widely reported to have worked vigilantly to stomp out its citizens civil liberties including; privacy, and freedom of expression, religion, association and the press.
One of the regime’s methods for achieving its aims has been to effect a practically universal stranglehold on the flow of information within the country. According to the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the DPRK boasts no independent media and all radios and televisions in the country are “pre-tuned to government stations.” Furthermore, people living in the North are forbidden to listen to, watch or read foreign media and all foreign broadcasts are jammed by the government. Violators of the government’s media policies are punished swiftly and severely.
Although the DPRK’s constitution provides for the free exercise of religion, the CIA believes that the reality in the North falls far short of the idealistic text. North Korea’s media continuously showered praise on the “dear leader,” and the population was required to demonstrate unwavering and absolute devotion. State sponsored religious groups do exist, ostensibly to provide an illusion of choice to the outside world. However, autonomous religious activity has all but disappeared entirely from the isolated state.
In order to maintain its grip on society, the DPRK’s government continues to punish political dissent harshly. Once accused of disloyalty, political dissenters and other “enemies of the state” are denied access to an impartial and independent judiciary and receive no due process in sentencing or punishment. Furthermore, public and secret executions, forced labor, intimidation, imprisonment and torture are reportedly widely utilized to impose the government’s will on the populace.
Additionally, a recent report by Amnesty International estimated the number of political prisoners currently languishing in the country’s remote gulags to be upwards of 200,000. Tens of thousands are estimated to have died from exhaustion, starvation, exposure, sickness or execution in the camps under Kim Jong-il. Yet, the North’s stranglehold on information and its treatment of political prisoners, though horrendous and inexcusable, are unlikely chief among the many pressing woes that most of the DPRK’s population continue to face on a daily basis.
At the close of 2011, the DPRK’s population is once again believed to be facing widespread famine. PBS Newshour reports that flooding and a severe winter have decimated the North’s food production. As a result, DPRK has set food rations for its non-military, non-political elite, civilian population at “200 grams or less per person per day.” According to the World Health Organization, the minimum daily energy requirement is around 600 grams of food per person per day. An estimated 60% of North Korea’s population depends on government rations for survival.
The volatility of the DPRK’s food security has been further aggravated by the large number of persons thought to be internally displaced (IDPs) as a result of flooding and famine. However, the exact extent of the impact of IDPs on North Korea’s food security is unknown, because an accurate number of IDPs in the isolated country is difficult to determine. As the situation appears to be worsening, international aid organizations fear that children, pregnant women and the elderly will face a significant risk of starvation throughout the winter.
However, food scarcity is nothing new to Koreans living in the DPRK. Kim Jong-il’s 17-year rule was marked by food shortages and malnutrition punctuated by periods of widespread starvation. In 1992, he launched his so-called “Military First” policy, which stressed intensive military spending above feeding DPRK’s population.
In times of economic hardship or agricultural failure this policy called for the military and state officials to be provided for first and often resulted in slashed food imports and severe hardship for much of the civilian population. Furthermore, the DPRK has repeatedly been accused of stockpiling international food aid for use by its military.
In addition to failing to provide food security to its people, the government under Kim Jong-il allowed human traffickers to operate with virtual impunity. Women continue to be systematically sold to buyers in China as wives, sex slaves or laborers. Furthermore, inside the country, the DPRK’s government effectively treats many of its citizens as slaves by mandating their type of employment.
In light of the ignominious human rights record of Kim Jong-il’s government, Kim’s death has sparked a series of serenades by international humanitarian organizations echoing previous calls from around the world for North Korea to commence immediate and drastic reforms. A plea from Human Rights Watch quoted the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea’s depiction of DPRK human rights abuses as “harrowing and horrific,” “egregious and endemic,” “systematic and pervasive” and “in a category of its own.”
Unfortunately, the prevailing view among analysts seems to be that the DPRK’s leadership will likely not be receptive to outside calls for quick and thorough reform. Indeed, many have pointed to Kim’s ruthless purge of potential enemies throughout the North’s society upon taking power in the 90’s and suggest that the military has already begun to initiate similar activities on behalf of the “dear leader’s” son Kim Jong-un.
While the future of the North Korean Government’s stance on human rights remains ambiguous at best, it may still be premature to predict whether or not Kim Jong-il’s death will have a significant impact on the suffering of the North Korean people. However, even if Pyongyang were to completely reverse its stance on human rights, salving the brutality of Kim Jong-il’s legacy would require substantial assistance from the international community for years to come.
Sources cited by Amnesty International report that the people of North Korea are eating grass and bark as they struggle to survive. Meanwhile, a cruel dictator lies bedecked in flowers.
For more information, please see:
CBC News — 7 Questions about North Korea’s Future — 20 December 2011
Amnesty International — North Korea: Kim Jong-il’s Death Could Be Opportunity for Human Rights — 19 December 2011
Huffington Post — Kim Jong Il’s Death Elicits Plea for End to Human Rights Abuses in North Korea — 19 December 2011
Human Rights Watch — North Korea: Kim Jong-Il’s Legacy of Mass Atrocity — 19 December 2011
PBS Newshour — Aid Groups: Children in North Korea at Risk for Starvation This Winter — 08 December 2011
Amnesty International — North Korean Prison Camps Grow Larger — 11 May 2011
Amnesty International — Images Reveal Scale of North Korean Political Prisoner Camps — 3 May 2011
Human Rights Watch — World Report 2011: North Korea — 24 January 2011
UN News Center — Human Rights Situation in DPR Korea Is Bleak, Independent UN Expert Says — 15 March 2010