Writing at 38 North, the last fantasyland of Sunshine’s remaining advocates, Alexandre Mansourov argues that “Kim Jong Un’s domestic policy record” so far has been “surprisingly good.”
But, by the time 2012 came to a close, one could detect hope in the air, and new positive expectations about the future. There was also plenty of public thirst for new information and foreign experiences, and an especially surprising amount of joy and enthusiasm on the streets of Pyongyang, now illuminated by jumbotrons, the multicolor lights of the newly built residential complex on Changjon Street, and the spectacular 2013 new year fireworks. Whatever happened last year in North Korea, it obviously lifted the spirits and hopes of its population, and the leadership led by Kim Jong Un deserves some credit for that. [Alexandre Mansourov, 38 North]
Mansourov bases this on an amalgamation of marginally significant regime reports he accepts at face value, cryptic rumors of purges and rehabilitations, his overreading of empty sloganeering, and the shallow proposition that equates the plagiarism of pop culture with reform. I cannot write a better answer to this superficial thinking than one brave North Korean woman did when she said this to a New York Times reporter:
“Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” she asked tartly, wringing her hands as she recounted the chronic malnutrition that has sickened her two sons and taken the lives of less-well-off neighbors.
Mansourov might also have helpfully suggested that Kim Jong Un loan his father’s collection of Daffy Duck cartoons to the Grand Peoples’ Study House for the cause of reform, too. Of course, North Korea’s oligarchs have long had access to more subversive fare in Shanghai, Beijing, and Macau. So what do these cosmetic changes mean to the other 99% of North Koreans? Here’s how their year went:
- Increased Repression. North Korea was listed, along with eight other flyblown hell-holes, as one of Freedom House’s “Worst of the Worst” for calendar year 2012, and was ranked 178th out of 179 in RSF’s index of global press freedom. The leader of the U.N.’s long-silent High Commission for Human Rights said that despite “some initial hopes” that Kim Jong Un would ease the repression of North Koreans, “a year after Kim Jong-un became the country’s new supreme leader, we see almost no sign of improvement.” Since Kim Jong Un’s coronation, the regime has made it harder for North Koreans to cross the border or learn what’s happening on the Outer Earth. It increased the number of internal checkpoints to crack down on traders and informal markets, a measure that will make food harder to find, especially in the interior and the south. It bought thousands of closed-circuit cameras to monitor its subjects. It executed Christians for their belief in any gods but the Kims. It issued new directives to “weed out impure elements,” crush dissent, and “find all the notorious dissidents, who are hiding a knife behind their backs and waiting for the right time to trigger a riot.” So far, Kim Jong Un’s reign has made his father’s seem like a Pyongyang Spring by comparison.
- Camp 22: Reform or Massacre? With astounding gall and sloppiness, Mansourov even suggests that the closure of Camp 22 could be a sign of reform. Hoeryong-area residents have provided a very detailed narrative of the prisoners’ evacuation and the camp’s closure, and recent satellite imagery lends some support to that narrative. The proof that the camp has closed is increasingly persuasive, but hardly conclusive; after all, the regime certainly has the motive and the means to disinform us. Still, all of the reports that Camp 22 did close suggest that this was done to conceal crimes against humanity, not as what Mansourov calls an “early sign of political decompression set in motion by the new regime.” To judge his claim, we have to know — and we really don’t know — the fate of Camp 22’s prisoners. There is no evidence that any prisoners were released. The most credible reports suggest that they were simply transferred to other camps to be worked and tortured to death in more isolated places. One particularly chilling version holds that nearly 30,000 of them were starved to death before the camp closed. Mansourov is reckless to suggest, without any supporting evidence, that the closure of the camp could be a sign of reform when for all he knows, it followed a massacre on the scale of Katyn, Babi Yar, or Tuol Sleng.
- Regressive Food Policies, Rising Prices. Last year, a lot of journalists allowed themselves to become very excited about a regime-planted story that collectives would soon be allowed to keep more of their harvests. So far, that promise has come to nothing. Although the reforms themselves “failed to materialize,” they did lead to speculation that probably contributed to a rise in food prices. Meanwhile, the regime continued to alienate food aid donors, divert foreign exchange to weapons programs, seize crops, and confiscate private plots:
The North Korean authorities are apparently proposing to reduce the size of hillside plots farmed privately from thirty pyeong down to ten (1 square meter is equal to 0.3025 pyeong), while all remaining acreage is meant to be handed over to existing cooperative farms.
A source from Hoiryeong in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on the 29th, “A cadre from the county Party Committee just told a packed meeting of the Union of Democratic Women that ‘the policy is that from this year all private plots of land are to be limited to ten pyeong, and the other twenty will be taken away and assigned to cooperative farms. That which is in the mountains will be used for planting trees’.”
The source continued, “We must also pay fifty won per pyeong in order to farm the ten pyeong that is allowed, and there will be severe penalties for transgressors,” before reiterating a common refrain in conversation with North Korean civilians: “The rations only last for three to four months anyway, so people have to live off their plots of land. Taking away their land is the same as taking away their food.” [Daily NK]
Scholars and journalists haven’t paid enough attention to the effect of these confiscations. In the USSR, private plots took up just 2-3% of the arable land yet produced 25 to 30% of the food supply. This percentage rose quickly between 1985 and 1990, after the Soviet leadership gave up on its restrictive and confiscatory approach to them, recognizing that the collectives alone couldn’t feed the population. There is also evidence that private agriculture produces a significant amount of North Korea’s food supply, and by 2009, 80% of North Koreans already depended on private markets for their survival. Even if the regime gets around to keeping its much-ballyhooed promise to let collectives keep more of their harvests, land confiscations might still offset its benefits.
All of this is indefensible for a nation where microfamine conditions still persist within unlucky regions, and among the expendable classes. North Koreans are still starving, the regime’s confiscatory policies are the cause of this, and Mansourov has the nerve to call this “surprisingly good:”
A member of the ruling Workers’ Party from a major city, Mrs. Park said that to feed her family, she sells cornmeal cakes from a market stall, but she complained of sluggish sales and famished children who snatch her wares from beneath a protective swatch of fabric. More than once this year, she said she walked by the lifeless bodies of those who were too weak to steal. “I would have given them food if I had any,” she said, looking away with shame. [N.Y. Times]
No Minders, No Hope. The cheery North Koreans Mansourov’s minders showed him (or his sources) aren’t telling the same story as reporters hear when they get away from the minders. For them, the outlook is drearier than ever:
Public opinion of the Kim Jong Eun regime is rapidly declining, especially among those in their 20s and 30s. According to a very recent defector, the failure of the authorities to do any of the things they said they would do, especially in economic terms, has led many to conclude that the new leader is “no different to the General.” [....]
She continued, “The younger generation, people who have a university education or just know a little bit about politics, have put aside their expectations. Only a few harbor any hope now: the children of senior cadres, for example, or those who have just been discharged from military service. Also, people from farming regions who know nothing of the outside world.” Just 10% of the population, she guessed.
The reasons behind the younger generation’s reversion to cynicism include not only the state’s failure to roll out the June 28th Policy on time and the wasting of a colossal proportion of the national budget on long-range rocket launches, but also the ongoing daily repression that they have to put up with. The success of the December 12th launch, the second in 2012 alone, helped improve the mood for a while, but that feeling could not last. [Daily NK]
Away from the minders, even some residents of Pyongyang seem demoralized as the Public Distribution System continues to fail, and as markets struggle to fill the void:
When I pressed him for the latest news from Pyongyang, he described how the sanctioned social and economic order in North Korea’s capital city was descending into anarchy. He added, “The leadership is no longer respected. Fewer Pyongyang residents are prepared to offer unquestioning loyalty and obedience to the state.” [....]
For the first time, Pyongyang residents are feeling trapped inside the city rather than trapped in the provinces, as the quality of life in the city continues to stagnate due to its distance from the vital black market trade that sustains the rest of North Korea. In this context, the ‘Provincialization of Pyongyang’ refers to how the phenomenon of decentralization and separation from the system in the provinces is spreading to Pyongyang itself. [New Focus International]
Pyongyang’s short-leash media strategy has long preyed on the gullibility, self-interest, and even the sympathy of journalists and other visitors to plant its selection bias and illusory self-image within the widest possible foreign audience. That strategy increasingly struggles against rising class disparities, even within Pyongyang itself. Fortunately for Pyongyang, there are still some observers who are struggling just as hard to overlook inconvenient evidence, no matter how overwhelming.