12/19/2011 01:51 pm ET

Kim Jong Il's Death Elicits Plea For End To Human Rights Abuses In North Korea

In the wake of Kim Jong Il's death, public and government reactions to the passing of North Korea's "Dear Leader" have ranged from condolences to stark remarks hinting at demands for change to North Korea's political and economic policy. As questions have been raised about whether Kim Jong Il's heir-apparent, Kim Jong Un, will be able to lead the country and secure the support of its senior officials, rights groups have urged governments to recall the country's appalling history of human rights abuses and how Kim Jong Il's repressive 17-year rule resulted in the deaths of thousands of citizens.

Amnesty International released a statement on Monday noting that the transition may be an important turning point in North Korea's "catastrophic" human rights record, adding that the transition will be an opportunity for the government to move away from "horrific, failed" past policies.

Indeed, life for many citizens of North Korea has been brutal under Kim Jong Il's regime. As Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director, notes, "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." Human Rights Watch's executive director Kenneth Roth offered similar criticism: "Kim Jong-Il will be remembered as the brutal overseer of massive and systematic oppression that included a willingness to let his people starve."

A 2010 Human Rights Watch report on North Korea's human rights situation notes that the former UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea wrote that the situation "can be described as sui generis [in its own category], given the multiple particularities and anomalies that abound." According to Vitit Muntarbhorn, "simply put, there are many instances of human rights violations which are both harrowing and horrific."

While rights abuses run rampant, widespread government censorship and lack of access to information give rise to national propaganda. "North Korea operates a vast network of informants to monitor and punish persons for subversive behavior," Human Rights Watch reports. "All media and publications are state-controlled, and unauthorized access to non-state radio or TV broadcasts is severely punished."

Over the past decade, North Korea has also expanded its notorious political prison camps "substantially," according to The Guardian. The camps are thought to hold thousands of prisoners, many of whom are allegedly guilty by association under a system of collective punishment, sent to the camps because one of their relatives has been detained. Former inmates describe horrific conditions at the prisons. According to a report by Amnesty International, "prisoners were forced to work in conditions close to slavery and were frequently subjected to torture and other cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment." A report released in May showing satellite photos of North Korea's political prison camps suggests that the number of camps is increasing. The camps are suspecting of holding at least 200,000 men, women, and children.

Furthermore, all the detainees interviewed from the Yodok prison camp reported witnessing public executions. While North Korea's Criminal Code officially reserves the death penalty for only a few offenses, Human Rights Watch reports that citizens are executed for "a wide range of crimes."

North Korea is also believed to be facing a severe food crisis. According to Amnesty, since the mid-1990s almost a million people have died of food shortages in North Korea. International aid groups believe that children, pregnant women, and the elderly are particularly at risk of starvation this winter. Flooding and a brutal winter have limited food production this year, and PBS Newshour notes that food rations have been reduced to "200 grams or less per person per day, which is only a third of the minimum daily energy requirement set by the World Health Organization."

North Korea's rights record is widely recognized as one of the worst worldwide. The New York Times' Nick Kristof tweeted on Monday that North Korea is "by far the most oppressive nation in the world." Many have expressed hope that the transition of power will create an opportunity for changes in government policy.

On Monday, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed hope that Kim Jong Il's death could mean a "turning point" for North Korea. "We hope that their new leadership will recognise that engagement with the international community offers the best prospect of improving the lives of ordinary North Korean people," he said. In early December, over 40 rights organizations called for international action to end crimes against humanity in the country.

However, it remains to be seen exactly how Kim Jong Il's succession will play out and what it will mean for human rights in North Korea. In a country where "arbitrary arrest, detention, lack of due process, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees remain serious and endemic problems," rights organizations have urged national governments to pressure Kim Jong Il's successor to usher in badly needed reforms.