Writing in The Washington Post, Chico Harlan reports that as North Koreans try to flee its most recent avoidable food crisis, the repressive partnership of North Korea and China has been grimly effective in keeping North Koreans from escaping from their prison of a country:
Last year, 2,706 North Koreans came to the South. During the first half of this year, there have been only 751 — a 42 percent decline compared with the same period a year earlier.
The unprecedented drop off reverses a 15-year trend. The downturn is especially jarring because it challenges an underlying assumption held by many analysts in the South that the North would face an ever-mounting problem keeping people within its borders. Indeed, after the North’s famine in the mid-1990s, the number of defectors arriving in the South rose exponentially — from fewer than 100 in 1997 to more than 1,000 in 2002 to nearly 3,000 in the past few years, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. [Washington Post, Chico Harlan]
Consider just how repressive a regime has to be to make North Koreans pine for the libertine days of Kim Jong Il’s reign. Following his death, clandestine news services report “increased crackdowns on defectors, increased restrictions on the use of Chinese cell phones, tighter border patrols, […] stricter regulation of markets and movements,” and increased mobilizations of city dwellers to labor in the fields. To enforce the crackdown, as the L.A. Times previously reported, the regime is increasingly relying on public executions of would-be refugees, and collective punishment of their spouses, parents, and children. Harlan adds:
North Koreans who attempt to enter China and travel to the South have long been subjected to punishment, often sentencing in one of the North’s detention camps. But after Kim Jong Il’s death this past December, according to information from recent defectors, government authorities visited towns and described a more severe policy: No longer would the North grant leniency to those who say they are simply visiting China to get money or medicine. During the 100-day mourning period for the Dear Leader, not only would captured escapees be punished — so, too, would their families.
The regime tightened restrictions on markets during Kim Jong Il’s mourning period, and hasn’t relaxed them since. Although most North Koreans now depend on these markets for their survival, the new restrictions coincide with an especially hungry year, due to a combination of mismanagement, obscenely misspent wealth, and severe drought, which somehow isn’t causing starvation in South Korea. For a while, it seemed that North Korea had brokered a deal to freeze its WMD activities in exchange for some food aid, but it chose to test a missile instead, and the deal fell apart.
This may not sound like glasnost to you, but the AP’s Jean H. Lee is tweeting and filing “news” stories from Pyongyang about matters of deeper significance: her sightings of Snoopy backpacks and Mickey Mouse sweaters. In a closed city where the elite have long had access to Sony TVs, Omega watches, and Mercedes cars, Lee concedes that these things “may seem trivial,” but then suggests that they represent “a seismic shift” in attitudes inside the regime. And while Pyongyang’s bold new summer fashions probably don’t meet the editorial standards of Vogue, Lee gives Kim Jong Un’s paramour, who may or may not still be married to someone else, the Asma Al-Assad treatment:
Seven months after inheriting the country from Kim Jong Il, the 20-something leader suddenly began appearing in public with a beautiful young woman. Dressed in a chic suit with a modern cut, her hair stylishly cropped, she carried herself with the poise of a first lady as she sat by his side for an unforgettable performance: Mickey Mouse grooving with women in little black dresses jamming on electric violins.
A few days later, video showed her flirting with Kim Jong Un during a visit to a kindergarten. She quickly became the subject of fervent speculation: Is she his wife? Girlfriend? A friend? [AP, Jean H. Lee]
This is written in a voice that would be better suited to Tiger Beat, or at best, a People magazine spread about whichever inbred, gerbil-faced British princeling brought a date to the Wimbledon after-party. Lee doesn’t tell us who this fahhh-bulous woman and the other Beautiful People wore to North Korea’s night of a thousand stars. At least that would have revealed (no, not that) the regime’s latest violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 to clothe the royal consort in highest fashion. The unanswered gossipy schoolgirl questions seem to be a device to spackle over Lee’s failure to even find out who this woman is. So much for opening North Korea to the world.
Beyond these atrocities of journalistic workmanship, it must have taken extraordinary powers of compartmentalization to write that in light of what Lee knows about life beyond the gates of Pyongyang:
Nearly a third of children under age 5 show signs of stunting, particularly in rural areas where food is scarce, and chronic diarrhea due to a lack of clean water, sanitation and electricity has become the leading cause of death among children, the [U.N.] agency said. Hospitals are spotless but bare; few have running water or power, and drugs and medicine are in short supply, the agency said in a detailed update on the humanitarian situation in North Korea.
“I’ve seen babies … who should have been sitting up who were not sitting up, and can hardly hold a baby bottle,” Jerome Sauvage, the U.N.’s Pyongyang-based resident coordinator for North Korea, said in Beijing before presenting the report to donors.
The report paints a bleak picture of deprivation in the countryside, not often seen by outsiders, who are usually not allowed to travel beyond the relatively prosperous Pyongyang, where cherubic children are hand-picked to attend government celebrations and a middle-class with a taste for good food have the means to eat out.
Sauvage’s report provides not only further evidence of North Korea’s inability to feed its people, but also bolsters critics who say the government should be spending on food security instead of building up its military, testing rockets and pursuing a nuclear program denounced by the U.N., the United States and South Korea. [AP, Jean H. Lee, June 12, 2012]
I’m glad to see Lee finally acknowledge that she’s spent the last seven months staring through a soda straw pointed at a facade, yet she continues to distort the significance of what she sees through it, if only to bolster the strained case for her own bureau’s relevance.
Is there any substance whatsoever to support Lee’s belief in this Pyongyang Spring? Just a hair. Lee cites the dismissal of Ri Yong Ho as a sign that Kim Jong Il’s ancien regime being sidelined in favor of a hip new generation of North Korean warlords. But as I pointed out in this post the other day, Ri was actually a rising star whose sudden elevation in 2009 was closely associated with Kim Jong Un’s own rise, coronation, consolidation of power, and “succession” to whatever. There’s zero evidence that the new crop of dour-faced generals is ideologically different from the last group of dour-faced generals. The only real evidence of the regime’s ideological intent is what it has inflicted on the people of North Korea over the last seven months.
Lee’s theory might be minimally convincing if she offered evidence that the regime was relaxing its control over information anywhere, or that it was relaxing its brutal enforcement of the isolation and deprivation of its underprivileged classes. By now, of course, the genie is out of the bottle. Ordinary North Koreans know enough about how badly they live in comparison to their neighbors that I doubt many of them really believe the official mythology or sincerely support the regime. But it is one thing to despise a regime tacitly; it’s another to feel that one can resist it. The increased difficulty of getting out of North Korea will mean that discontent will only build faster, and it calls on us to do more to help North Koreans communicate with each other, and with us, without crossing borders. It has never sufficed to simply wait for this regime to collapse on its own, but that’s especially true now.