Anniversaries and birthdays of national leaders are important celebrations in North Korea, famously decorated with spectacular flower arrangements, marching soldiers, firework displays, and ice sculpture shows.
The birthday of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founding president, is one of the most important and extravagantly celebrated national holidays in North Korea. Kim Il-sung celebrates his birthday in April, a national holiday titled “Day of the Sun.” The birthday of Kim Jong-Il, the father of the current leader, Kim Jong-Un, is another famously extravagant celebration in North Korea. In February, North Koreans celebrate Kim Jong-Il’s birthday, a national holiday known as “Day of the Shining Star.” This year, a North Korean government source reported that the country’s missile launch in January 2017 was a celebration of Kim Jong-Il’s birthday. The source stated, “It was the best possible gift for Generalissimo Kim Jong-Il on his 75th birthday.”
The 2017 missile launch was met with widespread condemnation from the international community. In addition, Human Rights Watch described the elaborate birthday celebrations of North Korean leaders as a reminder of the North Korean government’s disregard of human rights issues. “While Kim Il-Sung lies in his grave, his legacy of abuses lives on,” stated Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in response to the 2016 festivities in celebration of Kim Il-Sung. “The only gift the international community should present at Kim Il-Sung’s birthday remembrance is a crimes-against-humanity referral to the International Criminal Court for his grandson, Kim Jong-Un.”
In 2013, the Human Rights Council established the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to address the denial and violation of fundamental human rights in North Korea, especially concerning the rights of women and children. The Commission focused its inquiry around widespread existence of prison camps and the violation of rights such as the right to food, life, freedom of expression, freedom of movement; and freedom from discrimination, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced disappearances. After completing its inquiry into the violations of human rights in North Korea, the Commission confirmed that “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials.” The report emphasized that the international community should hold Kim Jong-Un and North Korea’s government accountable for the country’s violations of human rights. In a letter addressed to the President of the Human Rights Council in May 2013, however, the North Korean government “totally and categorically reject[ed] the commission of inquiry.”
North Korea is a party to four treaties on human rights, including: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Collectively, these international treaties ensure protection of human rights to all North Korean citizens with special attention placed on supporting the rights of frequently marginalized or abused groups of society including child, women, prisoners, criminals and religious, racial, or ethnic minorities. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights details the freedom guaranteed to each citizen to pursue his or her economic, social and cultural development and political status. The conclusions of the UN Commission’s inquiry, however, suggest that this provision is disregarded by North Korea and characterizes North Korea as a totalitarian state. The UN Commission’s inquiry describes the government of North Korea led by its current leader, Kim Jong-Un, who presides over a single political party that “seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within” by limiting it citizens, political and religious expression, physical movement, and communication. Furthermore, this control supports reports of North Korea’s human rights abuses and infringes on various provisions within each of the international treaties.
Despite its obligations to the international community in protecting its citizens from human rights violations, North Korea remains “one of the most repressive states in the world” and continues to disregard pressure from the international community to end the violations and prosecute those responsible. In 2016, North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong-Un, increased oppression on the North Korean people by tightening security at the border with China to prevent North Koreans from fleeing the country and further limiting access to foreign media and information. The United Nations General Assembly condemned human rights violations in North Korea in a committee resolution adopted in late 2016 aimed at pressuring the country to address its longstanding exploitations and oppression. A representative of North Korea rejected the resolution alleging that “the human rights situation in his country represented extreme politicization, selectivity and double standards.” The representative further alleged that the United States is overemphasizing the human rights issues within North Korea as retaliation because the United States “could not succeed in its efforts regarding nuclear issues.”
Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch cautions that focusing on North Korea’s nuclear advancements and threat to the world distracts the world from addressing widespread human rights violations throughout the country. Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch suggests human rights abuses against the North Korean people will continue until Kim Jong-Un and other senior leaders are held accountable for their injurious and oppressive actions. He echoes the sentiment expressed in by the United Nations Commission stating, “Pursuing accountability for rights abuses is really the only way forward to achieve justice for the victims of crimes against humanity committed by the North Korean government.”
Historically, the international community has not been successful in holding the North Korean leader and government accountable for its human rights violations, but now more than ever, it is imperative that the international community work together to find creative solutions. As North Korea proved with its missile launch early this year, its nuclear technology has improved dramatically. Using the missile launch as Kim Jong-Il’s grand birthday celebration, despite admonitions from the international community condemning the launch, demonstrates that the country prioritizes its own interests and feels comfortable making provocative threats to discredit the international community. As Admiral Harry Harris, the head of the US military’s Pacific Command cautions, “Combining nuclear warheads with ballistic missile technology in the hands of a volatile leader like Kim Jong Un is a recipe for disaster.”