TribLIVE

| Opinion/The Review

 
Larger text Larger text Smaller text Smaller text | Order Photo Reprints

Still your grandfather's North Korea

Email Newsletters

Click here to sign up for one of our email newsletters.

Letters home ...

Traveling abroad for personal, educational or professional reasons?

Why not share your impressions — and those of residents of foreign countries about the United States — with Trib readers in 150 words?

The world's a big place. Bring it home with Letters Home.

Contact Colin McNickle (412-320-7836 or cmcnickle@tribweb.com).

Daily Photo Galleries

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Blaine Harden
Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, 9:02 p.m.
 

As a rule, nothing greases reform like the death of a dictator. After Joseph Stalin, the gulag faded away. After Mao Zedong, policies that starved millions were abandoned. So when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died a year ago, there was reason to expect meaningful change.

Yet North Korea, the world's longest-lived totalitarian state, never seems to follow the rules. When its founding dictator, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994, the state stumbled but did not collapse or reform. For the first time in history, power in a communist state shifted from father to son. And Kim Jong Il turned out to be even more repressive than his father.

Now, the third generation of the Kim family dynasty, in the person of Kim Jong Eun, who is not yet 30, has cemented absolute control by doing what Daddy and Granddaddy could not do: His engineers sent the payload of a three-stage rocket into orbit, unnerving the world. His government is believed to be trying to develop a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop a missile capable of striking the United States.

In the months after his father died of a heart attack, there were tantalizing hints that Kim Jong Eun might move in a more moderate direction. Unlike his father and grandfather, he had lived in the West. He reportedly spent a few teenage years in a private Swiss school. He was untested and seemed callow to outsiders looking in, but after his father died, he proved with surprising speed that he was not a puppet of scheming relatives and headstrong generals. As surprising, he emerged this year as a charismatic agent of change.

He sacked generals, sent bureaucrats to China to study capitalism and talked openly of using economic reform to improve the lives of ordinary North Koreans. His father had never talked this way. Indeed, his father had never delivered a speech in public.

Kim the younger smiled often (also unlike his dad) and seemed YouTube-savvy. He won global attention by showing off an attractive and well-dressed woman who turned out to be his wife.

Still, Kim Jong Eun's image-making and reformist rhetoric have done little to change what his government does. North Korea's treatment of its people remains singularly oppressive, and a third of the population is chronically malnourished. This fall, the United Nations found “no indications of any improvement” in the country's wretched human rights record.

Without trial, North Korea continues to imprison an estimated 150,000 of its perceived political enemies in a 50-year-old gulag of labor camps that is clearly visible on Google Earth. More than 60 former inmates have given human rights investigators detailed accounts of how the camps operate — how the guards starve, rape and work inmates to death as slaves. North Korea has denied that the camps exist.

In some ways, repression has increased under the young dictator. He has tightened screws along North Korea's border with China, which in the past 15 years had allowed traders (and a trickle of defectors) out of the country and allowed in desperately needed food, clothing and household goods.

Kim Jong Eun reportedly has dispatched troops to the Chinese border to ensure that it is closed off. This year the number of defectors finding their way to South Korea has declined sharply.

A year after Kim Jong Il's death, North Korea's government has again defied history. The state has lost none of its appetite for being cruel to its own people. With a 20-something dictator in charge, the entire country is a no-exit prison camp.

Blaine Harden, a former Washington Post reporter, is the author of “Escape From Camp 14.”

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.

 

 


Show commenting policy

Most-Read Stories

  1. Marte’s 2 fine defensive plays rescue Pirates in victory over Reds
  2. Homestead Cemetery board files for bankruptcy
  3. Insurers: F-150’s aluminum costly to repair
  4. Mitch’s Bail Bonds claims FCBL crown
  5. Inside The Steelers: LB Williams dominates backs-on-backers drill at Latrobe Memorial Stadium
  6. Pirates trade for Dodgers 1B/OF Morse, Mariners LHP Happ
  7. Pirates place Burnett on 15-day disabled list
  8. Rossi: Nothing huge, but Huntington helped Bucs
  9. 2014 showing has Steelers RB Harris confident he belongs
  10. Steelers OLB coach Porter teaches as passionately as he played
  11. Allegheny County DA’s office: Photo of pair with gun evidence violates protocol