North Korea Increases Public Executions and Collective Punish…. Hey, Look! It’s Snoopy!

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.

18 comments

  1. Alec says:

    I’m sorry to say, the Excellent Horse-Like Lady is quite a catchy ditty!

    Plus, I just blogged on the never ending optimism of RoK businesses in restoring ties with the DPRK.

    ~alec

  2. Alec says:

    On your point about DPRK/China collusion in halting escapes, this may be one to watch:

    http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2012/07/23/2012072301283.html

    ~alec

  3. […] North Korea OK, not all of us are happy with the reporting of certain international news agencies from Pyongyang, but with foreign photo journalists in town, at least you get some good images from time to […]

  4. Snezhinka says:

    Sigh!!! (at your prejudice, bias and refusal to see anything other than what fits your agenda).

    The North Koreans can’t tell the difference between Snoopy and any other cartoon dog. Hence, it is not a big deal that they’ve got Snoopy backpacks – it is super cheap counterfit goods from China. The same thing goes for Mickey Mouse etc.

    When I was there the kids could recognise Hello Kitty though but I am not sure if they know it is Japanese and I doubt they’ve ever seen a Hello Kitty book or cartoon. They have their own cartoons there though, and they sometimes show old Russian cartoons.

    Life in the bigger cities is getting better every year, whether you and the spin doctors believe it or not. Life in the countryside, I believe, is fairly static although from what I have heard of expats, people do not appear to be starving. The same thing is slowly beginning to happen in the DPRK, as started happening in Vietnam 20 years ago.

    All you warmongerers and meddlers just need to leave the DPRK alone and it will slowly open up and thaw up a bit. If you look at how the Western powers have treated Korea over the last 200 years or so, and if you look at the culture of East Asia, and the geographical location of Korea, the current government makes perfect sense.

    If you care so much, get involved in some kind of friendship exchange or go there on holiday rather than sit and spit out your hatred, contempt and political agenda online! You’ll find that the North Koreans are a very proud people, are well aware their nation is poor but are prepared to put up with a certain amount of hardship.

  5. Yu Bumsuk says:

    “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.”

    I wouldn’t be so sure. Why have so many who’ve gone to China returned voluntarily? They know that the South is richer but want to cling to the story-line that they’re more pure and virtuous.

  6. Joshua says:

    Snezhinka, Have you ever considered the possibility that I do this for the sheer joy of writing things that people like you can’t stand reading?

  7. Joshua says:

    I’d question how many people return to North Korea for purity and virtue. I agree that many North Koreans return to North Korea voluntarily for various reasons, but I expect the most common ones are to support family members they’ve left behind, and to avoid endangering family members they’ve left behind. Beneath that, there’s a class/songbun divergence. Some members of the elite and their families travel fairly easily between China and NK, but here and there, we see directives to leave the family members home. For the very poor, many border crossers today aren’t defectors but people who are in China to find food and money to support their families back home. Ironically, it’s arrest by China that puts them in political danger of execution. If left alone, many (though they might privately despise their own regime and prefer to live in South Korea) will still return to the North because that’s where their families are who need the money they’re carrying.

    There is also a tendency for migrants to become defectors of opportunity.

  8. Alec says:

    I didn’t take Joshua to be making a comment on the tastes of North Koreans. Instead I saw it as a reference to the unbearable lightness of being which leads Jean Lee to see it as liberating.

    Further to his [Joshua] comment about leaving ‘collatoral’ behind, see Kenji Fujimoto who, although he was able to depart, appears to have had to leave his wife and children behind.

    In The President’s Last Bang, Park Chung-hee was portrayed as a degenerate on account – but, by no means, limited to – his taste for Japanese culture, so I wonder how Kim Jong-il was able to get away with having a Japanese sushi chef deliver him live fish which he’d then swallow like Jabba the Hutt.

    ~alec

    PS Many happy returns!

  9. Snezhinka says:

    @Joshua – yes, I guess you look forward to the fall of the current regime in North Korea so that the USA can set up some more military bases just at the border of China and Russia (wet dream of the US military, I should think).
    Or why not the opportunity of employing North Koreans for peanuts in sweatshops, while internal prices skyrocket as foreign goods knock out domestic ortanisations.

    I certainly don’t idealise the conditions in North Korea and I am sure the regime there has a great deal of work to do to reform itself and the country. But since your title is “One Free Korea” I’d like to point out that the “freest” country is usually considered the one that has no foreign military presence in its territory. If the people there turn against the regime it’s an entirely internal affair, whereas the US was propping up a right wing military dictatorship in Korea for almost half a century. The South Koreans currently vote for the “right” parties and there is no longer any risk of a reunification on North Korea’s terms. But should conditions change, the US is there to help ensure that “freedom” lol, prevails.

  10. Armed with Inkstick says:

    Bad news, everyone. Kim Jong-Un is apparently off the market. Sorry, ladies.
    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2012/07/kim-jong-un-married/54990/

  11. Alec says:

    But she’s g-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-rgeus!

    ~alec

  12. david says:

    I am shocked, shocked to note that AP doesn’t have wedding photographs.

  13. dorkly chair of the institute for space politics says:

    Unfortunately the planners of the recent British royal wedding were unavailable for kidnapping, so they had to kidnap an Elvis impersonator from Vegas.

  14. Alec says:

    Proof, if proof were needed that in Scotland, we cannot be trusted to fry porage without parental supervision.

    ~alec

  15. The Porcine Majesty says:

    yes, I guess you look forward to the fall of the current regime in North Korea so that the USA can set up some more military bases just at the border of China and Russia (wet dream of the US military, I should think).
    Or why not the opportunity of employing North Koreans for peanuts in sweatshops, while internal prices skyrocket as foreign goods knock out domestic ortanisations.

    “I certainly don’t idealise the conditions in North Korea and I am sure the regime there has a great deal of work to do to reform itself and the country. But since your title is “One Free Korea” I’d like to point out that the “freest” country is usually considered the one that has no foreign military presence in its territory. If the people there turn against the regime it’s an entirely internal affair, whereas the US was propping up a right wing military dictatorship in Korea for almost half a century. The South Koreans currently vote for the “right” parties and there is no longer any risk of a reunification on North Korea’s terms. But should conditions change, the US is there to help ensure that “freedom” lol, prevails.”

    I’d like to remind you just why the military presence in South Korea is necessary. If you may recall; the last time the United States left the peninsula, North Korea invaded the South. Not sure how you want to call it, but I’d say that’s still a very good reason to stay posted.

    While Pyongyang’s ability to reunify by force is almost nonexistent, China’s power has grown and they are able to project undue influence either directly or through North Korea which could affect South Korea. China may use the dream of reunification to negatively affect the activities of South Korea much in the same way Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun were swindled by Pyongyang.

    We also have to add North Korea’s penchance for reckless activity. Besides the notable incidents that have already occurred, Pyongyang still has 10,000+ artillery guns pointed at Seoul. That alone should validate a military presence. Let’s not forget the special forces which could cause havoc in case of war, regime collapse, or a number of random events, and it’s easy to see that the situation is still volatile.

    Besides, I don’t think the situation is about merely reform anymore. For Korea to reunify successfully, I think light needs to be shed on the atrocities of the Kim dynasty. Whether it be the Korean War, ignorance to the suffering of the people, labor camps, or the “Happy Corp.”, the Kim dynasty does not deserve to trot off into the sunset unscathed should reunification occur. What has occurred on the peninsula is the result of an uncontrolled monstrosity given free reign. It’s bad enough Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il ruled over the country with an iron fist, it’s another thing entirely that they tried to transform themselves into deities in the pursuit of vanity.

    Personally; the next time Pyongyang wants to play a game of chicken, I think we should destroy the statue of Kim Il Sung on Mansudae. If they try and retaliate, we move on to Juche Tower and so forth.

  16. […] commence! Anything that draws attention away from the country’s internecine power struggles and KJU’s crack-down on markets and wannabe defectors has got to be all to the good for the fledgling […]

  17. […] commence! Anything that draws attention away from the country’s internecine power struggles and KJU’s crack-down on markets and wannabe defectors has got to be all to the good for the fledgling […]

  18. […] so determined to show us they omit this part: Nearly a third of children under age 5 show signs of stunting, particularly in rural areas where […]

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