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Kim Jong Il’s Legacy Celebrated At Home, Debated Abroad


North Korean soldiers salute as others bow to bronze statues (not pictured) of North Korea's late founder Kim Il-sung and late leader Kim Jong Il at Mansudae in Pyongyang, in this photo provided by Kyodo, February 16, 2015.

North Korea honored its former leader Kim Jong Il on his 73rd birthday Monday with fawning praise for his political achievements and for his opposition to the United States.

Outside North Korea, human rights groups want the world to remember the late dictator’s legacy of rights abuses, forced labor and mass starvation.

The celebration for the late Kim Jong Il began with a massive fireworks display in Pyongyang.

The former leader of North Korea died of an apparent heart attack in December of 2011 after ruling North Korea for 17 years. His birthday is now a three-day-long national holiday called the "Shining Star Festival."

On a day of festivities that included synchronized swimming and figure skating exhibitions, North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, paid tribute at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, which commemorates his father and grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

The celebration also includes the distribution of free food.

Family legitimacy

Ahn Chan-il, president of the World Institute for North Korea Studies, said these holidays are important to bolster the Kim family’s legitimacy and hold on power.

He said North Korea is effectively utilizing these days to reinforce its citizens’ loyalty toward their leaders by offering them gifts on these birthdays.

At a meeting of party, state and army officials, a leader of the Workers' Party of Korea gave a speech praising the late leader for turning North Korea into a “world-class military power and dignified nuclear weapons state that no one dares provoke.”

International negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear program ultimately collapsed during Kim Jong Il’s time in power, resulting in the imposition of harsh diplomatic and economic sanctions from the West.

In the West, the former leader has been a subject of ridicule and derision over the internal North Korean propaganda that lauded his so-called achievements: how he wrote 1,500 books and three operas over three years, or how he sank 11 holes-in-one the first time he ever played golf.

But Phil Robertson, with the independent organization Human Rights Watch, said both the glorification and the mockery of Kim Jong Il overlook his legacy of repression.

“Kim Jong Ill ruled North Korea based on human rights abuses. Full stop. His repression, his ruthlessness his prioritizing of the maintenance of his power over the welfare of his people is his real legacy,” Robertson said.

While pursuing a nuclear military buildup, Robertson said, the former leader neglected a severe food shortage in the country in the mid-1990s when close to 3.5 million North Koreans are estimated to have died of starvation.

He added the former dictator oversaw a massive system of political prisons that still today incarcerate more than 100,000 North Koreans, using them for slave labor and exposing them to torture and execution.

His father's son

There was some initial hope that Kim Jong Un, because he was educated abroad, might work to reform the repressive system. But instead, Robertson said, he is proving to be his father’s son.

“We just see Kim Jong Un as continuing many of his father’s abusive policies. And of course Kim Jong Un has to celebrate his father’s birthday because it’s probably the only source of his legitimacy he has,” Robertson said.

In December, the United Nations Security Council considered for the first time a U.N. Commission of Inquiry report recommending that North Korea’s leaders be referred to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

While no action has yet been taken, Robertson said human rights activists will keep speaking out on the Kim family’s legacy of abuse until the repressive system is dismantled and current leadership is held accountable.

VOA News Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.