Stature, statutes and statues: North Korea commemorates Kim Jong-il

It is normally incredibly hard to get news of what goes on in North Korea.  Yet all of a sudden, you can’t turn a newspaper page for it. 

Images of a giant statue of Kim Jong-il, the former leader of the impoverished country who died of a heart attack in December, have been blasted around the world. This is a story we are welcome to feature.

The not-so-modest 6m bronze statue depicts him riding a horse next to his late father, Kim Il-sung holding a pair of binoculars keeping a watchful eye over his kingdom, no doubt. It was unveiled yesterday, ahead of tomorrow’s celebrations marking what would have been his 70th birthday (the disparity between the poverty endured by the general population and the shameless profligacy of the rulers in North Korea never ceases to shock me).

As well as the statue, Kim Jong-il was awarded the title of “Generalissimo”, the highest honour going.

And we are told that the celebrations don’t stop there. To commemorate what would have been the dear leader’s birthday, a planned amnesty of prisoners has been announced. We know nothing of who they might be, or how many they might number.  But one thing’s for sure, they will be “freed” in a precisely limited way, only.  This will not be the sort of border-crossing freedom that most of us enjoy.   We spoke out today about the dangers that face “defectors” when they are returned to North Korea. They can be given the death penalty.

Today, we urged China not to return the 21 North Koreans being held in the north-eastern Chinese city of Changchun, who were detained en route to South Korea and to instead provide them with access to the UN, or other relevant refugee channels.

Although China is a state party to the UN Refugee Convention, it has prevented agencies access to North Koreans in China in the past.  Today seems an apt day to remind China that international law prohibits the forcible repatriation of individuals to a country where they are at risk of facing persecution, torture or death, since China's Vice-President Xi Jinping has been speaking out about a firm commitment to human rights.

The vice-president is likely to take the presidency later this year and is visiting the United States this week. There was discussion this morning on the Today programme about how a move to re-evaluate attitudes to criticism and descent in China have to take place if Xi Jinping is to maintain power when he becomes President. It may indeed present an opportunity to show a more open attitude to critics and more willingness to engage with human rights in general. He could kick it all off by promising not to return the North Koreans. Perhaps we are on the verge of an historic new era of embracing human rights and freedoms in China. If that is proved to be the case, I will commission a statue of the President wrought out of gold myself.


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