(CNSNews.com) – As the world watched North Koreans’ televised pantomime of grief over the death of dictator Kim Jong-il Wednesday, the United Nations marked his bizarre state funeral by lowering its flag in New York and other centers to half-staff.
U.N. spokesman explained that the gesture was customary when the leaders of a U.N. member state dies, but it nonetheless raised eyebrows in the case of Kim, who headed what is widely viewed as the world’s most repressive regime.
The U.N.’s official flag code states that the world body’s flag must be flown at half-staff for one day, either on the day that the death of a member state’s leader, or on the day after (In Bangkok, where regional U.N. agencies are based, the flag flew at half-mast on December 23.)
The code also allows for the flag to be lowered to half-mast on the day of the funeral, in cases where the gesture is not possible earlier “due to weather conditions or other reasons.”
U.N. Watch, a non-governmental organization based in Geneva – where the U.N. flag was also flying at half-staff Wednesday – said while protocol was being observed, the U.N. should also voice solidarity for the victims of the Pyongyang regime.
“We understand that the U.N. follows diplomatic protocol, but the world body must not forget that its founding purpose is to defend basic human rights, and sadly that message is at serious risk of being blurred today,” said the group’s executive director, Hillel Neuer.
“Today should be a time for the U.N. to show solidarity with the victims – the millions of North Koreans brutalized by Kim’s merciless policies of starvation, torture and oppression – and not with the perpetrator.”
U.N. Watch urged the U.N.’s South Korean Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and the world body’s Geneva-based High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, “to make clear that today’s gesture in no way signals respect for a mass murderer of his own people, a man personally responsible for some of the worst atrocities of our time.”
In a brief statement released after North Korea announced Kim’s Dec. 17 death, Ban’s spokesman said “the Secretary-General extends his sympathy to the people of the DPRK at this time of their national mourning.”
“The Secretary-General reaffirms his commitment to peace and security on the Korean peninsula,” it continued. “The United Nations system will continue to help the people of the DPRK. The Secretary-General is closely following the situation.”
DPRK stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name of the Stalinist-ruled country.
Neuer voiced concern Wednesday that Pyongyang would likely “exploit the images of flags at half-mast to claim world sympathy for Kim Jong-il and his regime.”
‘The happiness of the people’
Footage of Kim Jong-il’s funeral showed tens of thousands of people and assembled troops lining the streets of Pyongyang as snow fell and the slow-moving cavalcade passed.
As most international media were barred from attending, coverage was provided by the official state broadcaster, whose television cameras slowly panned over the faces of those lining the streets as they displayed exaggerated signs of grief and anguish, sometimes verging on hysteria.
The motorcade comprised a black sedan topped by a giant portrait of the dead dictator, followed by another car bearing a gigantic wreath. Then came the hearse, with a large coffin nestled in a bed of flowers on the roof and draped in the red and yellow flag of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Son and heir Kim Jong-un walked alongside the vehicle towards the end of the long procession.
An official commentator lauded Kim Jong-il as a leader who did all he could “for the glory of the country and the happiness of the people.”
North Korea’s 24 million people, by many measures, are among the most oppressed and impoverished on earth.
The U.S.-based North Korea Freedom Coalition estimates that three million North Koreans have died as a result of abuses attributed to the regime, including starvation, since the mid-1990s, when Kim Jong-il took the helm after the death of his father, Kim Il-sung.
A World Food Program assessment early this year determined that more than six million North Koreans would need food assistance in 2011, and in April the WFP launched an emergency operation to feed 3.5 million of the most vulnerable, including children, women and the elderly.
As a percentage of GDP, North Korea spends less on health services than any other country on earth, coming in at 189th place. (The U.S. is at number two, South Korea is 90th).
North Korea is also widely regarded as the world’s most repressive state. It earns the worst possible ranking for civil liberties and political freedom in annual global evaluations by the democracy advocacy group Freedom House – the only country to have done so every year without fail since 1973.
The country also consistently tops lists of religious freedom abusers.
“Survivors of North Korea’s infamous prison camps have testified to our Commission about the brutal conditions they and their fellow detainees have experienced, including malnutrition, hard labor, beatings, forced abortions, and summary executions,” U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom chairman Leonard Leo wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday.
“Moreover, these and other sources estimate that 150,000 to 200,000 people are imprisoned in North Korean gulags, including whole families and many religious believers, some for decades without trial or due process,” Leo added.
He urged the Obama administration to ensure that U.S. diplomacy relating to North Korea “advances an agenda that gives a prominent place to the protection of human rights, including the freedom of religion and belief, as well as the provision of humanitarian assistance and the protection of North Korean refugees.”
The U.N. General Assembly last week passed a resolution condemning human rights violations in North Korea, by a 123-16 vote, with 51 countries abstaining.
The 16 votes against the measure came from Algeria, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Oman, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.