The more North Korea changes, the more it stays the same.
Hope springs eternal, even in geopolitics. In 2011 when North Korea’s Kim Jong-il died, he bequeathed his leadership position to his third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Quite a few of those who keep a close watch on the Hermit Kingdom, saw positive signs
Young Kim’s Swiss schooling, for example, was seen as a civilizing influence. He made some hints — only hints — that some reforms were in the offing. Then, not so long ago we saw photos of him strolling hand-in-hand with — surprise — his new bride. This was the first time since the founding of the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” that a leader’s wife had been mentioned, let alone seen in public, smiling shyly.
As with many hopes in the world of geopolitics, the ones arising from these “signs” were to be dashed. Under the adroit tutelage of his aunt’s husband, Chong Song-taek, the young leader quickly ingratiated himself with the elite of the military. Uncle Chong is a member of the powerful National Defense Commission. On it he is the director of the Administration Department. Far from being a boring backwater, the Administration Department oversees the Ministry of Public Security and the State Security Department, pivotal positions that help insure the ongoing importance of the country’s military elite.
Kim Jong-un doubtless learned from his late father the secret of North Korea’s decades-old strategy: periodically threaten dire action to frighten neighbors and the United States to bargain with them for food in exchange for promises to behave peaceably. The food and — at one point — equipment even for peaceful nuclear power — permitted the Kim family to maintain a closed, repressive state with a well-fed, perk-greased military establishment.
Uncle Chong no doubt reminded his young charge of this successful strategy and recommended something dramatic to bring the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and Russia back to the table. North Korea should shoot off a new missile. The cover story was to be that it would launch a weather satellite. No one believed this, of course. Instead, it was seen as a precursor for a nuclear-tipped long-range missile that might even hit the U.S. West coast.
The missile went off. The Obama Administration, used to putting out fanciful cover stories (see “Benghazi”), spread the idea that the missile was in an irregular orbit. Independent monitoring sources, however, showed it was right on orbit.
Through it all, Kim Jong-un seems to be everywhere, reviewing troops, inspecting factories, meeting dignitaries — with many smiles. And while he and his bride bill and coo in private, they await word from the U.S. and others that it is time to resume the Six-Party Talks.
Meanwhile, the fifty-year-old North Korean gulag continues to function with its usual efficiency, keeping the population cowed. The second edition came out recently of “The Hidden Gulag,” by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. It details the chilling story of the network of slave labor camps in the north and north-central mountains of the country.
In 2009, North Korea, in a formal report to the United Nations Human Rights Council declared that the term “political prisoners” is not in its vocabulary and therefore political prison camps do not exist there.
Yet “Hidden Gulag” has the testimony of hundreds for escapees from these labor camps who now live in South Korea. The new report also has detailed satellite photos of several of the camps. It estimates that there are currently 150,000 to 200,000 people detained in these camps.
Even though efforts by the U.S. and its allies have had some success thwarting North Korea’s currency counterfeiting efforts and interdicting several shipments of arms bound for such places as Syria, smiling Kim Jong-un is now awaiting the call for more multi-state meetings after the launch of his new satellite and its implicit threat of worse to come.
While the “hope” in “hope springs eternal” may have been dashed for now, another famous old saying is more true than ever: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Mr. Hannaford is a board member of the Committee on the Present Danger.
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