North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun where the statues of President Kim Il-sung and leader Kim Jong-il are standing during the 62nd anniversary of the end of the Korean War in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on July 27. (Reuters Photo/KCNA)

Commentary: No Honors for North Korea's Leader


AUGUST 13, 2015

When Rachmawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of former president Sukarno, who was one of the two Indonesian founding fathers 70 years ago, announced late last month her plans to give a peace prize to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, most people thought it was a joke. But last week, when she defended her decision and claimed there were no human rights violations in North Korea, it became apparent this was more about cynically using North Korea’s horrific rights abuses to get attention for her little-known organization. She’s succeeded in only dishonoring her father and making herself an international laughing stock.

Rachmawati confirmed that the Sukarno Education Foundation, the Bali-based organization that she directs, will give the Sukarno Award to Kim in September for his supposed “peace, justice and humanity.” She told the media that Kim “should be honored for his fight against neo-colonialist imperialism,” and added that she thought any allegations about rights abuses in North Korea were “all just Western propaganda.”

Meanwhile, the international community has condemned Kim for presiding over one of the most brutal and repressive governments in the world. In February 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in North Korea reported its findings that the North Korean government committed and continues to commit systematic, widespread and gross human right violations that constitute crimes against humanity. These abuses include public execution, murder, enslavement, enforced disappearances, state-sponsored abduction of foreign nationals including South Koreans, Japanese and Thais, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. The COI, which included the prominent Indonesian human rights advocate and UN special expert on human rights in North Korea Marzuki Darusman, ultimately recommended that the situation in North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court.

Reading through the horrific abuses, it’s hard to see how Rachmawati, the younger sister of former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, could decide to honor Kim, whose abuses the UN found were of “a scale and gravity without parallel in the world.”

North Korea was founded in 1948 by Kim Il-sung, Kim’s grandfather, who established a dynastic government that has annihilated civil and political rights, purged and persecuted dissidents, operated a network of gulag-like prison camps to punish perceived opponents, and used a metric of political loyalty to systematically oppress the vast majority of its citizens. The legacy of Kim Il-sung that has been continued by his son, Kim Jong-il, and now grandson Kim Jong-un, includes quashing freedom of expression and opinion, prohibiting independent media, and barring the development of free trade unions and non-governmental organizations. Kim Il-sung developed a cult mentality among North Koreans by demanding absolute loyalty to the state and to himself and pioneered brutal mechanisms to maintain total control over the population.

During his three and a half years in power, Kim Jong-un has intensified repression, increased border controls to prevent North Koreans from fleeing overseas and tightened freedom of movement inside the country, and taken steps to punish those possessing unauthorized information, news, films and photos from outside the country. In Kim Jong-un’s system, leaving the country without official permission is considered an act of treason, and those who have been caught and returned from China face arrest, torture, and long sentences and forced labor. The North Korea government publicly executes people on a regular basis for vague national security crimes, including so-called “crimes against the state” and “crimes against the people,” as well as a range of nonviolent offenses such as fraud and smuggling if the authorities deem the offense as “extremely serious.”

President Sukarno was a champion and founder of the non-aligned movement, which over the years often expressed its views through the UN General Assembly. Yet Kim Jong-un and the North Korea government have received little support there. After the UN Human Rights Council strongly endorsed the COI’s report, the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted for a resolution that condemned North Korea’s crimes against humanity, and called for legal accountability for the leaders responsible. A significant majority of countries from Latin America and Africa voted in favor of these UN resolutions, showing North Korea’s rights abuses are not merely “Western propaganda” as Rachmawati crudely claimed. Sukarno would surely be rolling over in his grave if he knew who his daughter is using his name to honor.

The bottom line is giving Kim Jong-un this award — or any award for that matter — flies in the face of the broad international condemnation of North Korea’s systematic and pervasive human rights violations.

If Rachmawati really cares about the human rights of the North Korea people, there are three things she should do. First, reverse the decision of the Sukarno Education Foundation to honor Kim Jong-un. Second, call on the Indonesian government to advocate at the UN for an end to North Korean rights abuses. And finally, she should promote her organization’s education mandate by helping to educate and inform Indonesians about the Kim dynasty’s brutal rule. Only then will she have redeemed the damage she has done to her father’s name.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, oversees the organization's work throughout Asia, especially in Southeast Asia, North Korea and Japan.