The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il represents an "unprecedented opportunity" for the country's new leaders to "turn a new page" on human rights, according to the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea.

North Korean news agencies reported on Sunday night that Kim Jong-il had died of a heart attack at the age of 69 while on a train to Pyongyang. It is expected that his son, Kim Jong-un, will succeed his father.

A LAND IN TRANSITION: North Korea's capital of Pyongyang. PICTURE: © btrenkel (www.istockphoto.com)

"While there may be a period of uncertainty and instability in the days ahead, the international community should ensure that the severe human rights and humanitarian crisis in North Korea is placed firmly on the agenda alongside security and political concerns. Action must be taken to bring an end to the regime’s crimes against humanity and the culture of impunity.”

- Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a member of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea.

The coalition, which brings together representatives of human rights organisations from around the world as well as survivors of North Korean prison camps, called on the government to cease human rights violations and ensure justice for victims, and immediately put an end to practices including forced labour, forced abortion of returnees, torture, executions, and political prison camps.

“The death of Kim Jong-il opens up an opportunity which the international community should seize, to help free the North Korean people from decades of brutal oppression," says Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a member of the coalition.

"While there may be a period of uncertainty and instability in the days ahead, the international community should ensure that the severe human rights and humanitarian crisis in North Korea is placed firmly on the agenda alongside security and political concerns. Action must be taken to bring an end to the regime’s crimes against humanity and the culture of impunity.”

Souhayr Belhassen, president of the International Federation for Human Rights, another member of the coalition, says access is "urgently needed" for independent and neutral human rights monitors - in particular the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea and international humanitarian organisations.

The coalition says it will continue to campaign for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity in the country.

Meanwhile, Open Doors - an international organisation which supports the persecuted church around the world - called for Christians to be praying for the country and the Christians who live there.

"Today marks a significant day in North Korean history," saysDr Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors US chapter. "Though this brutal dictator, who was responsible for so many atrocities, has died, the future is still unknown. Some speculate that his son Kim Jong-un will be just as cruel to all dissenters. Others suggest that he may be more lenient. We simply do not know the future of North Korea, but God does."

Dr Moeller says it is "vital" that Christians around the world pray for North Korea during this "transition time", in particular for the 50,000 to 70,000 Christians being held in prison camps "where they face even more horrific treatment than other prisoners". 

"People are starving to death. The people of North Korea are living a nightmare that never ends."

North Korean Christians regularly face arrest, torture, and even death because of their face in Jesus Christ. The country has topped Open Door's World Watch List - which ranks countries according to the level of persecution Christians face there - for the past nine years.

'Simon', Open Doors' main contact for Christians inside North Korea, says it is unlikely Kim Jong-il's death will mean any policy changes.

"In fact, since Kim Jong-un came closer to the helm, North Korea has stepped up its attempts to uncover any religious activities," he says in a statement. "There have been more house raids, more spies trained to infiltrate religious and human rights networks and one South Korean Christian who was murdered in China because he helped refugees. Christians fear what Kim Jong-un (is) capable of doing. He will do anything to keep hold of power."

'Simon' described Kim Jong-un, designated as the next leader in October 2010, as "young and inexperienced". 

"There may be a power struggle, which he may not win," he says. "On the other hand, the clique around the Kims has been able to hold the ropes for over six decades. They have made it very difficult for opponents to get organised. Something special is needed to topple the regime."

Open Doors also provided a statement of reaction from a North Korean Christian refugee living in Seoul, South Korea. She says she had "mixed feelings" when she heard the news of the death of Kim Jong-il.

"I always thought I'd be happy when he was dead. I hated him but God taught me to love my enemies. My North Korean friends react in different ways. One is angry and says: 'He should have died like Muammar Gadhafi (former Libyan dictator killed several months ago).' Another is relieved: 'Congratulations! Now the Koreas will become one nation soon.' To be honest, I don't see that happening very quickly. Even if the 'absolute power' has died, the generals and other rulers will do their very best to keep control."