Threat of decomposing Kim corpses could force North Korea to 'feed its own people'

Julian Ryall
The body of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il lies in state at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang shortly after his death in 2011 - REUTERS

They may have been dead for years, but a Japanese human rights activist believes the embalmed bodies of former North Korean dictators Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il can be used as leverage to force the present regime to feed its own people instead of spending money on nuclear weapons and missiles. 

Ken Kato, a director of Human Rights in Asia and a member of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea, has written to members of the United Nations Security Council to request that they halt the transfer of chemicals needed to preserve the embalmed corpses, which are on display in glass coffins in the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang. 

Recent media reports have stated that the embalming work and regular maintenance of the corpses is carried out by technicians from the Centre for Scientific Research and Teaching Methods in Biochemical Technologies - the so-called “Lenin Lab” - in Moscow, which first embalmed and displayed Vladimir Lenin’s body in 1924. 

Experts from the institute have travelled to the North Korean capital approximately every 18 months since Kim Il-sung, revered as the founder of the nation, died in 1994 to ensure that his remains do not decompose. The same work has been carried out on the corpse of his son, Kim Jong-il, since his death in 2011. 

The cost of maintaining the corpses is not known, but estimates have put the figure at around £300,000 a year. 

In his letter to the UN, including one to Karen Pierce, the UK’s representative in New York, Mr Kato calls on the Security Council to “launch an investigation into the smuggling of chemicals from Russia to North Korea in violation of [the] luxury goods ban” imposed under a series of UN resolutions. 

The letter from Ken Kato

Mr Kato insists that the chemicals required to embalm the bodies should be considered luxury items because they are not designed to improve the lives and well-being of ordinary North Korean people. 

“I want to force North Korea to feed its own people before spending tens of thousands of dollars every year on dead people in a mausoleum or on nuclear weapons or missiles”, Mr Kato told The Telegraph. 

“Over the years, they have spent millions on building and maintaining this mausoleum and now preserving the bodies that lie inside it, while their own people have starved”, he said. “We should not be a party to that willful neglect”. 

A UN report issued in early March said around 11 million North Koreans, approximately 43 percent of the total population, are presently in need of humanitarian assistance and called for member states to provide aid of $120 million that targets, in particular, malnutrition among children. 

A similar request last year for $111 million in international assistance raised only a quarter of the total. The international community remains reluctant to donate out of concerns that aid enables the North Korean regime to divert funds to its weapons programmes and to buy luxury goods for the elite members of its society. 

Mr Kato suggested that denying North Korea access to the chemicals required to keep the bodies of its former leaders from decomposing might also weaken the present regime’s grip on power. 

As well as removing corpses that the public are required to revere, he said, it would also underline the fact that the North relies on foreign technology and know-how even for the most important members of its society. 

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