North Korea Perestroika Watch: Kim Jong Un’s Border Crackdown Is Working

The most superficial things you’ve probably heard about Kim Jong Un are the closely related ideas that he is, or must be, a latent reformer because he (a) appreciates aspects of Western culture, (b) has a fashionable wife, and (c) had a Swiss education. As examples, I’ll cite this report by Jean Lee, this and this from Joohee Cho of ABC, and this exercise in straw-grasping by John DeLury. The problem with this theory is that it isn’t supported by any evidence that the regime has become less brutal, menacing, controlling, or confiscatory in the last year.

Leave aside the foundational question of whether Kim Jong Un is more than a figurehead, an assumption I am underprepared to accept. During his schooling abroad, he didn’t exhibit many signs of intellectual curiosity, enlightenment, or strength of character. Even the word “education” is a stretch; Jong Un didn’t graduate from his expensive foreign school.

Historically, the exposure of dictators’ sons to foreign culture has not moderated them; it was just another place for them to be everything they were at home except above the law and shielded from our sight. Because little tyrants eventually become big tyrants, what they became  was self-indulgent, impulsive sociopaths. Nicu CeausescuUday Hussein, and Hannibal Qaddafi never lacked for access to Europe’s fleshpots. Nicu and Uday (both of whom were serial rapists at home) are rumored to have palled around together in Switzerland, and both Uday and Hannibal share the distinction of being expelled from it for violent assaults (so enraging the elder Qaddafi that he demanded that the entire country of Switzerland be abolished; Hannibal later got in trouble in Denmark and the U.K. for other assaults). Like his peers before him, Kim Jong Un was privileged enough to be whisked off to a bacchanalian playground. Unlike his peers, he spent his time there torturing animals and masturbating to bondage porn alone in his room. But he loves Disney characters! Yes, and so did Hitler. It’s at least as plausible to theorize that Jong Un combines the self-restraint of Nicu and Uday with the poisonous inadequacy of Goebbels and Hitler.

I’ve already drawn the comparison between how Lee and Cho covered Ri Sol Ju’s fashions to how Vogue covered Asma Assad’s. This shouldn’t really surprise us. Don’t the first ladies of most impoverished banana republics love high fashion? I’ll say this much for Asma — the long list of her husband’s crimes doesn’t include starving his people while telling the world he can’t afford corn.

We know very little about Kim Jong Un’s personality; in fact, we don’t even know how important it is to know about it. All we can judge is the regime’s performance on matters of substance since his coronation. Maybe one day, the regime will make some pragmatic or humane reforms, although there’s scant evidence for that now. Last fall, for example, there was a lot of excitement outside North Korea when the regime announced agricultural reforms that would have allowed collectives to keep more of their crops.  Never mind that the move was accompanied by the seizure of privately cultivated land, which had become a major source of food and income for less-privileged North Koreans. The reforms were quickly forgotten as the harvest came in.

Politically, the regime has cracked down on information flows and defections. The area around Camp 22 is a particular target for warnings to citizens against telling what they’ve witnessed inside North Korea. Judging by new statistics from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the crackdown is working.

Screen Shot 2013-01-13 at 9.49.47 AM

[Source: ROK Ministry of Unification, via Stars and Stripes.]

Although the crackdown began during Kim Jong Il’s rule, it has been redoubled since his death.

Under North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, human rights activists and South Korean officials say, it has become increasingly difficult to smuggle refugees out of the country, contributing to a sharp drop in the number of North Koreans reaching South Korea in the past year. [NYT]

Notwithstanding the explanation by the Times that this decline is the result of a crackdown, it’s appropriate to ask ourselves if there might be other reasons for this decreased flow. Foreign observers are seeing more cars, cell phones, and luxury goods in the elite reservation of Pyongyang, but are most North Koreans better off now than they were in 2009? The answer is probably not. North Korea’s economic recovery from the Great Famine of 1993 to 2000 appears to have peaked around 2005, when it was reversed by a series of confiscatory measures. As recently as last year, there were reports of microfamines in Hwanghae, the rice bowl of North Korea, as a direct consequence of crop seizures.  Unfortunately for the people of Hwanghae, it is all but impossible for most of them to make it all the way across North Korea to the Chinese border, to say nothing of crossing the border and evading Chinese police. (I suppose these things are especially hard to do while starving.)

Noland NK GDP growth

[Source: Noland, Witness to Transformation]

The decline in refugee flows also coincides with the disastrous December 2009 currency revaluation that I like to call The Great Confiscation. This action not only caused tremendous financial hardship for many North Koreans, it did lasting damage to North Korea’s black-market economy and unprecedented public disturbances, even resulting in an apology by North Korea’s third-highest official and, so it is rumored, the execution of at least one scapegoat. I’ve stopped hearing reports that the regime is closing down markets or banning the sale of foreign goods, as it had been in 2009, but the existence of these markets, on which most North Koreans depend for their survival, remains tenuous.

In other words, economic conditions in North Korea probably got worse for most North Koreans during the period between 2008 and 2011 (I don’t have enough information to extend that trend through 2012). North Korea looks like an even more miserable place when compared to South Korea’s rapid GDP growth:

North Korea vs. South Korea FIXED

[Source:  Washington Post]

The Wall Street Journal‘s Kwanwoo Jun Evan Ramstad actually asked the question of whether improved economic conditions might explain the drop in defections. He gets an answer, and two more plausible explanations:

Few in Seoul see the latest data as a sign of North Korea turning into a better place to live in under Kim Jong Eun, the new leader who took power after his father Kim Jong Il died in late December 2011.

“That falling number doesn’t mean that economic conditions are getting better in North Korea,” said Kim Yong-hyun, professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University. “A number of people, who could no longer bear the hardship up in the North, have already fled the country, and those who have stayed behind are probably immune to the difficulties or able to find a way to survive the ordeal.”  [Korea Real Time]

Ramstad also points to China’s crackdown on the other side of the border, and notes that North Koreans who had intended to defect to South Korea (or perhaps return with money or goods to North Korea) may be stranded in China.

One dynamic that intrigues me is the tendency of defections to ventilate political pressures by allowing the most discontented and ambitious dissenters to escape.  Now that only the very rich can hope to escape North Korea, what alternative stands between the discontented and lives lived in misery?

Correction: I mistakenly attributed the Korea Real Time post to Evan Ramstad. I apologize for the error.

4 comments

  1. Glans says:

    Joshua, you seem to be finding more time for this blog. I hope that means things are going well personally and professionally.

  2. Jbot says:

    The one question that North Korea optimists never seem to ask themselves is what benefit does the regime get in loosening its grip? I have to wonder if some of this hope of North Korea reforming is predicated on some belief that the regime actually cares about the well-being of its people.

  3. Chris says:

    Bashar al-Assad might actually be the best comparison yet – studied in the West, fashionable wife, wasn’t really groomed for the job until pretty late. Upon taking office at a fairly young age was widely seen as a potential reformer but those hopes, uh, aren’t exactly being met right now.

  4. Joshua says:

    Jbot, I agree with your generalizations, and I’m sure you’d agree that on closer examination, it’s not all black or white. It may well be that some local officials are relatively protective of /compassionate toward some of their citizens, although compassion is generally a luxury in a miserable place, and I think compassion is probably a disqualifier for higher office in Pyongyang. You can certainly identify some cases (Kaesong, Kumgang, Orascom) in which the regime calculated that the risks of allowing carefully circumscribed foreign intrusions were outweighed by their large financial benefits. Of course, Kumgang isn’t operating today, and Kaesong is obviously controllable and profitable for the regime or it wouldn’t still exist. I have to say, I’m surprised that Orascom runs at all, but I suppose if you take a few seconds to think how hard it is for the regime to earn money and keep the proles down without reliable comms, the regime had an incentive to give its loyalists, officials, and trading companies access to trans-national communications. It’s a balance that’s struck hard in the direction of control, however, and they allow just as much foreign interaction as they absolutely must.

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