Who is the President of North Korea?
The President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the head of state of North Korea. Currently, the President is Kim Jong-un, who took office on 15 April 2018. Kim Jong-un is the third leader of the Kim Dynasty, the hereditary communist autocracy responsible for the nation’s leadership since its inception in 1948. This article will discuss the specific mandate of the President and the weight of Kim Jong-un’s horrific human rights record on North Korea’s international reputation.
Ostensibly, the President of North Korea is empowered with a variety of domestic responsibilities, most notably supervising the nation’s labour unions and overseeing the North Korean armed forces. The President also presides over ceremonial ones, such as appointing state officials. However, North Korea’s de facto leader is the First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea Kim Jong-un. Strictly speaking, the President holds a lesser title than the General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea due to the holy status the Kim Dynasty wields in North Korea.
On a practical level, the President is nothing but a figurehead. Human rights activist Malou Chinal notes that Kim Jong-un’s appointment in effect formalized a dynastic succession as he was chosen to succeed his father, Kim Jong-il. Whereas Kim Jong-il technically held the title of “supreme leader”, signifying his cult-like status, Kim Jong-un has assumed the more democratically-allied title of President. This suggests that the North Korean regime was seeking to give a veneer of democracy to their oppressive rule.
The human rights situation in North Korea has been a source of contention for the international community. Amnesty International has reported that the North Korean government has systematically perpetrated a long list of human rights violations including enslavement, torture, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence. These violations have perpetuated a state of perpetual terror for the North Korean people for decades. Human rights activist Nara Lee explains that these grave human rights abuses are largely due to the North Korean government’s attempts to preserve its power by curtailing freedom of expression and access to information, given the fragility of their public support.
The current President has done very little to suggest that the situation is likely to improve anytime soon. In the aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011, Kim Jong-un and the Workers’ Party of Korea worked hard to associate him with his father and grandfather in order to lend legitimacy to his rule. This has resulted in a conscious effort to uphold the political and economic system established by his predecessors and thus maintain his grip on power. Consequently, the economic and social rights of North Koreans are continuously disrespected and human rights abuses are left unpunished. In short, the North Korean political system is profoundly patriarchal and extremely oppressive, led by a President who insists on playing the role of an autocrat.
The Legitimacy of Kim Jong-un’s Presidency
The legitimacy of Kim Jong-un’s presidency, stemming from his dynastic succession, is questioned by various members of the international community. Political analyst Pyon Ki-nam expresses that Kim’s power is based in a cult of personality constructed around his family rather than any legitimate democratic process. As such, it’s clear that the North Korean government’s use of the term “president” is merely an attempt to give the appearance of legitimacy and deflect criticism from the West.
A major concern for Western countries is the potential for the North Korean President to perpetrate further human rights violations, underpinned by their past record. This is reflected in the 2018 World Report by Human Rights Watch, which notes that there has been no real dismantling of North Korea’s dangerous state machinery. It reveals that North Korean security forces enjoy a level of impunity from prosecution and still frequentlycommittees gross violations against the population.
Moreover, a lack of access to information makes it difficult to assess the situation inside North Korea, limiting the ability of governments and activist organisations to evaluate the situation first-hand. Foreign intervention is often met with heightened hostility and creates further risk to the North Korean people. Due to this, a consensual approach between the international community and North Korea is required in order to facilitate the possibility of change.
The Role of South Korea and International Aid
The closest obstacle to obtaining a clearer picture of the human rights situation in North Korea is South Korea, with whom the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has had a strained relationship for over seventy years. As a result, many North Korean refugees are dependent on international aid organisations to provide a safe passage and resettlement opportunities. This is carried out through networks of clandestine operatives operating in North Korea, namely the Underground Railroad.
International aid has proved to be an effective way to support North Koreans, with increased help coming from China, Japan and South Korea. Despite the roadblocks posed by the North Korean government, aid organisations have managed to build relationships with the people in an attempt to eliminate severe poverty and protect the rights of refugees and victims of human rights abuses. These organisations have been proven to lessen the oppressive control of the North Korean government and to put pressure on them to make necessary changes.
At the same time, representatives of the international community are attempting to negotiate with the North Korean government. As of now, sanctions and condemnations have largely been unsuccessful in changing the government’s policy. This has created the need for a different approach, one that seeks to provide aid and resources rather than solely rejecting the North Korean government.
International Repercussions of North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses
North Korea’s international reputation has suffered as a result of reports on the government’s human rights violations. UN investigators claim that the most serious violations of human rights law as a result of Kim Jong-un’s tenure, include arbitrary detentions, torture, enumerable killings, disappearances and torture. It is these horrific acts that fuel the fear of those living in North Korea, creating an oppressive atmosphere that promotes silence and allows these human rights infringements to go unpunished.
Not surprisingly, the opinion of North Korea among the international community is far from flattering. Its human rights record continues to be heavily scrutinised, with much of the blame falling on the President. Kim Jong-un is seen by many to be personally culpable for the abuses that are occurring in North Korea, even though the power and resources are in the hands of those loyal to him.
The situation has been further exacerbated by the North Korean government’s tendency to deflect criticism and downplay human rights abuses. Kim Jong-un has refused to cooperate with international organisations, denouncing their findings and refuting their claims as “distortions”. He has also refused to engage with UN-led initiatives, a move which only serves to raise suspicion over his motivations and the reality of the human rights situation inside North Korea.
The President of North Korea’s titular power and significance are largely ceremonial in nature. This has disappointing implications on the suffering and oppression of the North Korean people, who are subject to human rights abuses due to the oppressive policies of Kim Jong-un. While the people of North Korea still suffer, international organisations and governments are attempting to negotiate with the North Korean government and provide support. However, continued efforts by Kim Jong-un to diminish these attempts and downplay human rights abuses are cause for concern.
Constant Fear in North Korea
Living conditions in North Korea remain dire, as reports of food shortages, limited healthcare and restrictions on freedom of speech and other basic rights are still prevalent. Human rights activist Ji Seong-ho notes that often members of the North Korean population face brutality and persecution, forcing many of them to live in constant fear. This has led to a situation where the North Korean authorities can cite any slight sign of protest or dissent as an act of treason or disloyalty that carries harsh punishment.
The North Korean government continues to be heavily criticised for their human rights abuses, yet very little can be done to alter the situation due to the lack of access to information. This is why international aid and support is necessary in order to help the North Korean people. Moreover, foreign governments and organisations must urge the North Korean government to accept accountability for their actions and implement reforms that will benefit all of North Korea’s citizens.
The Impact of Sanctions and Technology
In recent years, the UN has implemented a series of sanctions in an effort to pressure the North Korean regime into making human rights reforms. This has had limited effect, but some analysts argue that the sanctions have caused enough economic hardship to decrease living standards and raise the risk of famine. International aid organisations have been attempting to deliver more effective aid, often using satellite technology to locate famine areas.
Given the lack of access to technology in North Korea, the internet has also proved to be an important tool in adapting the country’s society to the changing world. Through its use of new platforms, companies can bypass the nation’s censors to reach people in North Korea with knowledge. This allows for information to spread and for citizens to learn about the violations taking place in the country.
The North Korean government is also slowly allowing access to certain technological advancements. This is most evident in the booming North Korean cell phone market, which allows individuals to communicate with one another through messaging and voice-calling apps. This new technology allows for increased information sharing, as limited as it might be, and can potentially lead to increased awareness of the abuses taking place within the nation.
The Influence of the Media
The role of the media in the outside world can play an important role in influencing a dialogue that focuses on human rights in North Korea. Independent news sources, blogs and social media are being used to raise awareness of the tragedies facing the North Korean people. This allows individuals to mainstream their stories and make the public aware of the painful experiences of those who have been oppressed. What’s more, media platforms can also serve as a platform for advocacy, by bringing attention to relevant petitions and campaigns.
These stories serve an important purpose in creating a dialogue about the commonality between North Koreans and those in the rest of the world. This shared understanding helps to create empathy and foster solidarity that can lead to change. Moreover, by creating an account of North Korean citizens’ struggles, the media plays an instrumental part in creating a global movement that shifts the focus away from the North Korean government and towards the people.