One month ago today, the people of North Korea learned that their Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, had died. While the news triggered hysterical shock in Pyongyang, the event brought new hope to those who work hard to penetrate North Korea’s hermetic society. One after another, many of these NGOs and ministries released statements postulating that maybe, just maybe, Kim’s youngest son and anointed heir—Jong-un—would break with family tradition by promoting genuine liberty for his people.
Such hopes are certainly understandable. Due in large part to the regime’s aversion to private markets, extreme poverty is a fact of life for large swaths of the population. The World Food Programme, North Korea’s largest distributor of multilateral food aid, estimated in 2011 that six million people needed food assistance, while one in three children were chronically malnourished. Such issues have been endemic since the mid-1990s, when an extraordinarily bad famine claimed millions of lives.
North Korea’s record on religious freedom is no better. Once dubbed the “Jerusalem of the East” for its large Christian population and deployment of missionaries, all manifestations of Christianity were eradicated as Kim Il-sung consolidated his power in the early 1950s. Understanding the dissonance between Christianity and utopian government schemes (such as communism), Kim reportedly commented: “We came to understand that religious persons can only be broken of a bad habit if they are killed.” Today’s North Korea has sustained this policy, throwing Christians into labor camps (a death sentence for many), executing them for Bible ownership, and punishing families to the third generation for any sign of Christian influence.
Optimists who see promise in the leadership transition contend that Kim Jong-un’s time attending school in Bern, Switzerland exposed him to the fruits of a free society. Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping, they remind us, likewise benefited from his time in Paris. But the rule is not a hard-and-fast one; both Mussolini and Marx spent a good deal of time in relatively freedom-oriented countries (Switzerland and England, respectively), but still settled on philosophies and policies incongruent with freedom and individual dignity. Optimists respond that Jong-un seems to have taken to Western culture, as he is a big fan of NBA basketball and Michael Jordan. His father’s penchant for Elvis Presley and Rambo, however, never did translate into wholesale adoption of Western-style democracy.
Whatever our hopes, change in the near term is highly unlikely. While Kim Jong-il had some 15 years to prepare for leadership under his father’s tutelage, Kim Jong-un had one-fifth that, having been seemingly tapped after his father’s stroke in 2008. On the fly, he will be forced to learn the delicate balance of political power in that country. His first priority will be to consolidate power, proving his legitimacy to the political establishment as well as the highly influential military apparatus (to this end, expect more saber-rattling toward South Korea). Intent to retain their current clout and influence, the powers-that-be are not particularly enthused about the prospect of an economically free and spiritually rich North Korea; Kim Jong-un will thus have strong incentive to squelch dissent wherever it appears.
- The foundations have already been laid for heightened vigilance. After Kim Jong-il’s death, North Korean and Chinese border patrols were beefed up, new roadblocks and checkpoints were added, new barb-wire fencing was installed, and journalists were prevented from entering the border area. Small, tightly controlled markets were shut down (some of which have since reopened), and religious restrictions were tightened. Kim Jong-il would not have selected a reformist softy as his successor—and in Jong-un, he did not.
But what of a coup? Any sort of organized, successful upheaval would likely not come from the citizenry. After all, those reduced to boiling tree bark for dinner hardly have the wherewithal to overturn a highly consolidated and centralized system like North Korea’s. If anything happens—and at this point, the likelihood is small—it would likely emanate from the officer corps. There is said to be discontent among mid-level military professionals, many of whom have dedicated their lives to the regime and received little in return. Others may be bitter about the high military honors conferred upon Kim Jong-un and his uncle and close confidante, Chang Sung-taek—neither of whom was required to earn his way through the ranks. If an uprising along these lines did occur, the consequences would be far from clear, with liberty not necessarily an automatic result. “Revolution,” quipped a ruthless but clever Mao, “is not a dinner party.”
I pray that my skepticism is proven wrong. But until more promising evidence comes to light, new leadership in the halls of Pyongyang sadly signifies only a continuation of the brutal and miserable status quo.