Continuity of Denial: Kim Jong-un’s Succession and North Korean Human Rights

By Robert Collins

Few countries base their self-sustainment on the concept of denying human rights to its populace. That is, if they are not authoritarian dictatorships, which historically see internal enemies in a far more immediate context than foreign ones.  History has seen plenty of these dictatorships in the 20th Century and before.  But the 21st Century has its fair share.  And perhaps there is no dictatorship more totalitarian than that of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un Regime.

North Korean society is characterized by the values of the collective over the individual, the priorities of a dictatorship, and the denial of human rights to any and all citizens.  Led by a regime that overwhelmingly employs pervasive tools of political terror, North Korean society is designed from the top to focus on collective support to the supreme leader through revolutionary thought and constant political indoctrination.  


Contrary to early predictions of economic reform, Kim Jong-un has sustained and promoted the policies of his father and grandfather.  The human rights plight of the North Korean citizen has worsened as those in Pyongyang continue to gain privileges and opportunity for financial success, so long as they work to promote all current regime policies, while those outside Pyongyang continue to work in a feudal system where daily survival is very difficult at best.  The gap between the haves and have-nots, more accurately described as the gap between the privileged and suppressed, continues to widen. 


Inheriting a dictatorship is risky business, to be sure.  Threats abound and plenty of challengers would be ready to step into the leadership position if it were not for the political terror network so prevalent in dictatorships.  The inheritor of dictatorial power, whether he or she had reasonable morals in the first place, must put those morals aside to manage the volatile institutions, personnel and policies implementing human rights as they are until succession is secure.  That means a new dictator must grasp control of the current political structure as it is before considering how to institute any kind of reform – economic, human rights or otherwise.  So after securing the Kim Family Regime and after gaining confidence in his ability to control threats to his position as the North’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un basically has three choices regarding the regime’s human rights policies: improve them, leave current human rights practices as they are, or increase denial and suppression of those rights. From the looks of it, Kim Jong-un has chosen the latter course of action.



Certainly, denying human rights does not happen in a vacuum of security policy.  Indeed, there are many cornerstones to Kim Jong-un’s hold on power, just as there were for his father and grandfather:  political terror, ideological indoctrination of the populace, social classification of each citizen, resource control, border security, and personnel purges on the domestic front, as well as increasing military capabilities for both internal and external defense and to heighten peninsular and regional tensions on the international front.  All of these contribute in some way, directly or indirectly, to Kim Jong-un’s ability to deny human rights to every North Korean. 

The greatest challenge Kim Jong-un faced in the succession process was securing control of the military.  The casual observer of North Korea would think that the North Korean dictator need not regard the control of the military as a component of change in the North’s human rights policy.  However, without control of the military, there is no guarantee of succession and no anticipation of human rights improvement. 

After Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in August 2008, he began laying the foundation for Kim Jong-un’s succession to replace him.[1]  For Kim Jong-un’s transition to greater and greater authority, Kim Jong-il did not have the 30 years he was given by Kim Il-sung to secure power. As it turned out, he only had three years.

After returning from his secondary education in Switzerland, Kim Jong-un attended a three-year artilleryman course at the Kim Il-sung Military Academy and then a two-year graduate course for regimental and division commanders at the same institution.  His first assignment was in General Political Bureau’s (GPB) division of the Korean Workers’ Party Organization and Guidance Department, a position that taught him how to gain control of the Korean People’s Army through the GPB political commissar system.[2] 
From that point on, Kim Jong-un has used GPB personnel[3] as his means of controlling internal security agencies, the core institutions of human rights denial.  For example, Choi Yong-hae[4] was appointed the new GPB Director in April 2012[5] from one of North Korea’s premier families whose dedication to the Kim Family Regime is total.  After Lee Chin-su died in 1987 as the Director of the State Security Department (SSD), Kim Jong-il did not appoint a new director through the end of his life in 2011.  Essentially, that meant Kim Jong-il himself was the SSD Director and lead implementer of human rights denial.  But within a short time after assuming power, Kim Jong-un appointed General Kim Won-hung to be the SSD Director, moving from the position of vice-director of the GPB.  Kim also promoted another GPB senior officer, Colonel General Cho Kyong-chol, to the position of Commander of the Military Security Command, the SSD’s military counterpart, and lead institution of human rights denial within the Korean People’s Army and defense industries.[6]  These actions followed the dismissal of two SSD Deputy Directors in 2011 (Ryu Kyong) and 2012 (U Dong-chuk).  Loyalty to Kim Jong-un is the supreme requirement of the regime’s lead human rights henchman.  There have been plenty of military personnel purges after Kim Jong-un’s assumption of power.  Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho was purged from his position of Chief of the KPA General Staff; Admiral Kim Chol was purged from his position of Deputy Minister of People’s Armed Forces; and six of nine KPA corps commanders were replaced, the first time in North Korean history that has happened in such a short period of time.  Indeed, since Kim Jong-un was designated successor in 2010, a total of 32 elite personnel have been purged, a solid indicator of no changes in the North’s human rights policies.[7]  To reinforce this approach of loyalty first, Kim Jong-un gave a speech on October 29, 2012, at Kim Il-sung Military Academy where he stated, “We do not need people who are not devoted to the Party and Suryeong (supreme leader), no matter how militaristic their disposition or excellent their tactical ability.”[8]

As for Kim Jong-un himself, his first military appointment was as the Deputy Chairman of the Party Central Military Committee on September 28, 2010.  Within days after his Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011, and as an indicator of power priorities, Kim Jong-un was appointed the by Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Politburo Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army on December 30, 2011.  This was based on Kim Jong-il’s wishes dating from October 8, 2011.[9]  Kim Jong-un was then appointed at the 4th Party Representatives Conference on April 11, 2012 as the Party’s First Secretary[10] and then appointed the Chairman of the National Defense Commission at a meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly meeting on April 13, 2012.[11]

Another connection between the military and human rights denial are North Korea’s asymmetric military capabilities development and its impact on resources.  The successful long-range missile test in December 2012[12] and its third nuclear test,[13] along with subsequent threats against President Obama, the United States, and South Korea, were effective in raising military tensions across Northeast Asia to the U.S. homeland.  But these capabilities were and are a major contributor to the denial of the right to food as described in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[14]  The December missile launch was estimated by the South Korean Government to cost US$1.3 Billion, enough to purchase 4.6 million tons of corn to feed its people.[15]  The failed missile test of the previous April cost the Kim Regime US$850 Million, enough to feed 80% of all North Koreans for a year.[16] These expenditures could have easily relieved food security problems in North Korea where, according to the latest quarterly report from the World Food Programme, 81% of all households are at the poor or borderline level in food consumption.[17]  Missiles and nukes before feeding the populace is obviously the priority of the Kim Jong-un Regime, as evidenced by a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report that the North only purchased 57% of the grain necessary to feed its population.[18]

Far from being the type of economic reform anticipated by academics and media analysts in the United States and South Korea, mostly based on Kim Jong-un’s western-style education in Switzerland, the regime has introduced the “June 28th economic reforms” that were actually more about control than economic opening.  For example, the June 28th policy reduced the amount of land farmers could use as private plots from 30 pyeong to 10 pyeong (one square meter is 0.0325 pyeong); farmers had to pay 50 North Korean won per pyeong to cultivate their private ploys; and farming units were reduced in size down to 4-6 personnel.[19]  The State Security Department (the North’s version of Nazi Germany’s Gestapo), the Ministry of Public Security (national police), and local prosecutors are all out ensuring local farmers are complying with the new directives,[20] an indication that state profits are prioritized before the right to food.[21]  Limiting the work unit size effectively limits assembly and has the added impact of limiting dissident cooperation, thus making the security agencies’ mission easier.

Under Kim Jong-un, border patrol policies and procedures have also been changed so as to suppress the ability to escape into China by bribing the border guards.  Command and control over border guard units has been changed so that they are now under the regime’s most powerful tool of political terror, the State Security Department.  Subsequent to this change, border patrol units are now rotated more frequently in order to break down the ability of brokers – working to help refugees escape – to develop relationships with guards susceptible to bribes.[22]  Another measure introduced by the Kim Jong-un Regime to stop the defections includes limiting the opportunity for border security forces and internal security forces to collect bribes and look the other way.  Now, individuals repatriated from China go directly to jail instead of being interrogated, thus eliminating even North Korea’s draconian legal system from providing rights to those accused of criminal activity.[23]

The number of refugees able to flee their plight in North Korea has dropped considerably since Kim Jong-un took over as the North’s Supreme Leader.  There has been a total of over 24,000 North Koreans that have made it to freedom in South Korea, with 2009 being the top year of such defection at 2,917.  But under the younger Kim, that number dropped to 1,509 in 2012.[24]  However, it should be noted that North Korean defector numbers increased slightly in the first half of 2013 over the same period the year before – 717 compared to 710.  This is the first increase since 2009.[25] 

The recent North Korean defectors-produced-and-directed movie “48M” highlights the extent to which the Kim Regime tries to prevent defections across the border into China.  Ambushes by border patrols to kill any person attempting to cross the Tumen River are common.[26]  These ambushes have increased under Kim Jong-un.[27]

The continuity of denying human rights to the North Koreans seems definitive and any hope of reform in that area is apparently now non-existent.  While Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power is certainly not an established fact, his control over the personnel, institutions and practices that carry out human rights policies progresses with certainty and ruthlessness.  

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, created earlier this year, is designd to investigate evidence of crimes against humanity committed by the Kim Regime, based on Article 7 of the Rome Statute.  With these developments under the Kim Jong-un Regime, cooperation between the regime and the commission seemed doomed from the start.





[1] For analysis of this process, see Robert Collins, “Political Dimensions of North Korea’s Third-Generation Succession and the Potential for Crisis,” International Journal of Korean Studies, Spring/Summer 2012, p.74-114. URL:  http://www.icks.org/publication/pdf/2012-SPRING-SUMMER/5.pdf.
[2] Cheong Seong Chang, “Pukhangun Chongjongchikukui Uisangmit Yokhwalkwa Kwonryok Sunggye Munje (Issues of the Rise of the North Korean Military’s General Political Bureau and its Role and Authority in Succession),” Sejong Institute, Policy Research Paper 2013-8, 2013.
[3] The General Political Bureau is a Korean Workers’ Party organization assigned to the Korean People’s Army.  It’s mission is to monitor the political loyalty and performance of every soldier and every unit, particularly unit commanders.  From the KPA General Staff down through battalion and even frontline companies along the DMZ, each unit has a GPB staff that provides daily reports up the chain that are reviewed by the KPA supreme commander, e.g. Kim Jong-un.
[4] Also spelled Choi Ryong-hae.  He is the son of Choi Hyon, former long-time Defense Minister under Kim Il-sung and Kim Il-sung compatriot during the anti-Japanese partisan struggle in Manchuria during the late 1920’s to 1945.
[5] Cheong Seong Chang, “Pukhangun Chongjongchikukui Uisangmit Yokhwalkwa Kwonryok Sunggye Munje (Issues of the Rise of the North Korean Military’s General Political Bureau and its Role and Authority in Succession),” Sejong Institute, Policy Research Paper 2013-8, 2013.
[6] Lee Jong-hun, “김정은에 충성 경쟁 북한 군부 새판은 장성택 작품(Chang Song-taek’s New Project is the North Korean Military’s Loyalty Competition Toward Kim Jong-un),” Donga News, April 23, 2012. URL: http://weekly.donga.com/docs/magazine/weekly/2012/04/23/201204230500014/201204230500014_1.html.
[7] O Gi-Seob, “Kim Jong-un’s Rule After One Year: Regime Stability and Constructing a Transitional Ruling Regime,” Sejong Institute, Sejong Commentary No.257, December 21, 2012. 
[8] Chris Green, “Kim Regime Facing Military Loyalty Battle,” Daily NK, November 2, 2012. URL: http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk00300&num=9983.

[9] Lee Jong-hun, “김정은에 충성 경쟁 북한 군부 새판은 장성택 작품(Chang Song-taek’s New Project is the North Korean Military’s Loyalty Competition Toward Kim Jong-un),”Donga News, April 23, 2012. URL: http://weekly.donga.com/docs/magazine/weekly/2012/04/23/201204230500014/201204230500014_1.html.
[10] His father, Kim Jong-il, was appointed KWP General Secretary for life, thus the new title of First Secretary.
[11] O Gi-Seob, “Kim Jong-un’s Rule After One Year: Regime Stability and Constructing a Transitional Ruling Regime,” Sejong Institute, Sejong Commentary No.257, December 21, 2012. 
[12] Jethro Mullen and Paul Armstrong, North Korea Carries Out Controversial Rocket Launch,” CNN, December 12 2012. URL: http://edition.cnn.com/2012/12/11/world/asia/north-korea-rocket-launch.

[13] Kelsey Davenport, “North Korea Conducts Nuclear Test,” Arms Control Association, March 13, 2013. URL: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2013_03/North-Korea-Conducts-Nuclear-Test.

[14] See Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, URL: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/.
[15] Jason Mick, “South Korea Says North Korea Dumped $1.3B USD Into Missile Launch,” Daily Tech, December 12, 2012.  URL: http://www.dailytech.com/South+Korea+Says+North+Korea+Dumped+13B+USD+Into+Missile+Launch/article29409.htm
[16] Kevin Voight, “North Korea’s $850 Million Rocket Failure,” CNN Business 360, April 13, 2012. URL: http://business.blogs.cnn.com/2012/04/13/north-koreas-850-million-rocket-failure/
[17] World Food Programme, “Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO) 200114 “Nutrition Support for Women and Children in DPRK”,” June 2013. URL: http://www.wfp.org/sites/default/files/PRRO%20200114%20bulletin%202013%202nd%20quarter%20version%202%208%202013%20(2).pdf.

[18] Korea Herald, “N. Korea Food Procurement Effort Inadequate To Cover Shortfalls: Report,” August 9, 2013. URL: http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20130809000160.

[19] Kim Kwang Jin, “Farmers in a Muddle over Private Land Order,” Daily NK, January 1, 2013. URL:  http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk09002&num=10270; see also Kim Kwang Jin, “6.28 Policy Goes Live in 3 Yangkang Counties,” Daily NK, July 20, 2012. URL:  http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk09002&num=9551; and Open Doors, “North Korea: Is Change Possible?,” undated; accessed July 30, 2013. URL: http://www.opendoorsuk.org/news/stories/north_korea_change.php.
[20] Kim Kwang-jin, “Putting the Squeeze on Farmers,” Daily NK, August 23, 2012. URL:  http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk09002&num=9706.
[21] See Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, URL: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/.
[22] Jung Young, “Rapid Rotation of North Korea’s Border Guards Hampering Defections,” Radio Free Asia, July 1, 2013. URL: http://www.rfa.org/english/news/korea/border-07012013171715.html.
[23] Lee Sang Yong, “Regime Puts Limits on Bribe Time,” Daily NK, August 2, 2013. URL: http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk01500&num=10800.
[24] Choe Sang-hun, Fleeing North Korea Is Becoming Harder,” New York Times, January 4, 2013. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/05/world/asia/crackdowns-make-fleeing-north-korea-harder.html?_r=0.
[25] Chosun Daily, “N.Korean Defectors Increase Slightly in First Half,” July 23, 2013. URL: http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2013/07/23/2013072301030.html.

[26] Joshua Lipes, “Film Captures Refugee Plight,” Radio Free Asia, September 21, 2012. URL: http://www.rfa.org/english/news/korea/film-09212012192018.html“48” stands for the narrowest distance across the Tumen River separating North Korea’s northeastern frontier from eastern Manchuria, thus an otherwise passable crossing.

[27] Y. Jung,김정은 등장 탈북자 사살 늘어 (North Korean Refugee Deaths Increase After the Rise of Kim Jong-un),” Radio Free Asia, November 8, 2011.  URL: http://www.rfa.org/korean/in_focus/human_rights_defector/killdefector-11082011101658.html?searchterm=%ED%83%88%EB%B6%81%EC%9E%90+%EB%A7%A4%EB%B3%B5.


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