Wednesday, February 19, 2014

North Korea: Belligerence vs 'Smart Policy'

The following article is an expanded version of
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 248| Wed 19 Feb 2014

By Elizabeth Kendal

UN Commission of Inquiry Report Confirms Horrific Abuses

On 21 March 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed Resolution A/HRC/RES/22/13 which established the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).  The Resolution gave the Commission a 12 month mandate to investigate systematic and widespread human rights abuses in North Korea. North Korean Ambassador So Se Pyong denounced the Resolution as "an instrument that serves the political purposes of the hostile forces in their attempt to discredit the image of the DPRK," adding, "those human rights abuses mentioned in the resolution do not exist in our country".

The Commission of Inquiry's report was released on 17 Feb. It documents "a wide array of crimes against humanity" and details "unspeakable atrocities" to conclude: "The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world." As noted in the report: "The State considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the State. Apart from the few organized State-controlled churches, Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted. People caught practising Christianity are subject to severe punishments . . ." (article 31)

Office of the High Commission on Human Rights Press release
North Korea: UN Commission documents wide-ranging and ongoing crimes against humanity, urges referral to ICC (17 Feb 2014)

Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

-- North Korea balancing reform and risk

The UN Commission of Inquiry report also remarked on what is without a doubt the key dynamic of North Korea today: "Strengthening market forces and advancements in information technology have allowed greater access to information from outside the country as information and media from the Republic of Korea and China increasingly enter the country. The State’s monopoly on information is therefore being challenged by the increasing flow of outside information into the country and the ensuing curiosity of the people for "truths" other than those provided by State propaganda. Authorities seek to preserve their monopoly on information by carrying out regular crackdowns and enforcing harsh punishments". (article 30)

The Kim Jong-un era

Groomed to rule, Kim Jong-un assumed power after his father (the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il) died in Dec 2011. At his father's funeral, Kim Jong-un accompanied his father's casket along with the 'Gang of Seven' -- an inner circle of elites tasked with guiding and mentoring the young ruler.

By the end of 2013, four of the seven had been purged -- including Kim Jong-un's hugely influential uncle, Jang Song-taek -- and one had been demoted. Kim Jong-un is consolidating power and establishing a new order that he hopes will provide him with a better chance of holding on to power through the challenging times ahead. According to analysts, 'the upper ranks of North Korean leadership are now sprinkled with people who hold a known interest in reform'.

Kim (who did his secondary schooling in Switzerland) and his younger clique know that the information seeping in will generate anger and dissent as North Korea's impoverished masses become aware of their plight relative to the outside world. So, in a race against time, the regime is implementing agricultural and economic reforms designed to raise the living standards of ordinary Koreans. The regime is also easing the way for foreign investment and undertaking major infrastructure projects -- highways, theme parks and resorts -- designed to make North Korea more attractive to North Koreans as well as to tourists.


In line with the June 28 [2012] New Economic Management Measures, known informally as the "6.28 Policy", agricultural production units may be reduced to between 4-6 people (i.e. family-sized). While set quotas are still in place, the state now takes 70 percent of the quota (rather than 100 percent for central redistribution - military first). The remaining 30 percent is left for the family who are free do with it whatever they wish: eat, trade, store etc. Furthermore, if the family produces more than the quota, they also get to keep the surplus. This actually reverses Kim Jong-il's Songun (military first) policy.

North Korea Pushes Ahead on Agricultural Reforms,
The Diplomat, 17 May 2013

North Korea making visible progress towards reforms.
Institute for Far Eastern Studies, 7 June 2013


". . . to build foreign investor trust, the country has considered allowing 'international law supersede domestic North Korean law regarding investments' . . ."

INSIGHT-Kim Jong Un, North Korea's master builder
Reuters, 23 Nov 2013

Mounting Problems (The Masikryong Ski Resort)
The Economist, 14 Feb 2014 
see also: NK Economy Watch

Recommended articles:

Kim Jong-Un dismisses powerbroker uncle as North Korea inches toward reform
Nathan Vanderklippe in BEIJING, The Globe and Mail, 3 Dec 2013

Kim purges for a new economic dawn
By Sascha Matuszak, 10 Jan 2014

North Korea’s rolling economic reforms
By Ruediger Frank, University of Vienna, 24 September 2013
Now comes the tough part: finding ways to foster economic development while maintaining the stability of the political system. Reform is the only option for Kim Jong-un, but implementation will not be easy, because he must accomplish many tasks simultaneously. . .

Like painting a masterpiece, reforming North Korea may seem easy in theory but it will be highly complex in reality. Thus, a smart policy by the international community is needed. The obvious strategy for Seoul would be to support positive trends by expanding trade and investment. The many negative and frustrating experiences of the past should be a lesson not to expect (or promise) too much too soon. Transforming a systemically failed socialist economy has never been easy, in particular if it is supposed to take place gradually. Reconciling two parts of a nation that once fought a bloody civil war and have lived separately for almost 70 years is a gigantic task. Accepting that successful reform means prolonging the current regime is a bitter pill for many, but what are the alternatives?

The above paragraph by Frank addresses the very heart of the matter: how to move forward. As Frank states, transforming North Korea is going to be a highly complex and exceedingly delicate operation for which "smart policy" and great patience will be required. The regime will be constantly balancing reform and risk.

Frank's closing sentence is key: "Accepting that successful reform means prolonging the current regime is a bitter pill for many, but what are the alternatives?"

I have long maintained "that an all-round positive outcome for North Korea (reform without bloodshed) can only be achieved through gradual openness alongside a strategy for maintaining stability" (RLM Aug 2007). As unpalatable as this "bitter pill" may be, the alternatives are a return to isolation with unprecedented repression OR a descent in civil war and massive bloodshed.

As one who has been monitoring religious liberty in North Korea for over 15 years now, the current situation leaves me with a strong sense as déjà-vu. What can we learn from history?

Kim Jong-il era

In 2002, Kim Jong-il enacted economic reforms, moving North Korea towards a free-market economy. [Actually, the markets had risen during the famine as people sought means to survive. When Kim Jong-il endorsing them in 2002, he was merely endorsing a trend he could not stop.] Knowing the risks attached to any degree of openness, the regime simultaneously amended the criminal code to stiffen penalties for anti-State crimes. This strongly resembles today's situation.

However, once the darkness is breached, the situation can quickly become very difficult to control. By 2004 the regime was looking for ways to turn the clock back.

See: North Korea's balancing act.
By Elizabeth Kendal for WEA RLC, 16 December 2004
Paik Hak-soon, director of North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, told the Korea Times [8 Dec 2004] that, "Kim Jong-il is now trying to prevent social problems from drastically undermining his regime."

The free-market reforms have also brought many North Korean traders into contact with the outside world. As noted in a recent Washington Post (WP) article entitled, "For North Korea, Openness Proves a Two-Way Street" (13 Dec 2004), "...diplomats, analysts, intelligence sources and recent defectors say that the once airtight lid on information in what is known as the Hermit Kingdom is gradually loosening."

The WP article states, "Asian intelligence sources estimate that as many as 20,000 North Koreans -- particularly those trading in the newly thriving border area with China -- now have access to Chinese cellular phones, from which they can make undetected international calls in large areas of northern North Korea." Also, at the new Kaesong Industrial Park near the border with South Korea, and the tourist resort at Mount Kumgang, South Korean firms are directly employing and paying North Korean workers for the first time.

The WP quotes Sohn Kwang Joo, managing editor of the North Korea Daily (a Seoul-based website) as saying, "North Korean people and the elite bureaucrats all want more reform. But the faster the doors open, the more vulnerable becomes Kim Jong Il's tight grip of the nation. Kim Jong Il will therefore try to control and limit the opening. But as more people cross in and out of the border, there are more mobile phones, and more flows of information, the North Korean people will begin to realize the truth about Kim Jong Il." . . .

The years of reform and gradual openness had yielded several positive changes, including: family reunions, the move to a market economy, cross-border trade with China, trains crossing through the demilitarised zone, the opening of Kaesong Industrial Park enabling economic cooperation with South Korea, and the establishment of the Christian-funded, English-language, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

See: North Korea: Changes
". . . though your footsteps were not seen".
By Elizabeth Kendal for WEA RLC, 24 August 2007

However, by the end of 2008, it was all over. All positive steps had been reversed and North Korea had returned to isolation. For Kim Jong-il, reform had proved too difficult, too threatening. Things had changed and the risks had begun to out-weigh the benefits.

Lankov concluded: "It seems that North Korean leaders believe that their system cannot survive major liberalisation. They might be correct in the pessimism. . . . Were North Korea to reform, the disparities with South Korea [a rich and free country that speaks the same language and shares the same culture -- i.e. is not 'foreign'] would become only starker to its population. This might produce a grave political crisis, so the North Korean government seemingly believes that in order to stay in control it should avoid tampering with the system. Maintaining the information blockade is of special importance, since access to the overseas information might easily show the North Koreans both the backwardness of their country and the ineptitude of their government."

See: North Korea returns to isolation
By Elizabeth Kendal for WEA RLC, 2 December 2008


There is no doubt in my mind that the US North Korea Human Rights Act (Oct 2004) -- signed into law by President G.W. Bush -- directly contributed to North Korea's return to isolation. The law, which was  effective from 2005 to 2008, granted $2 million a year to pro-democracy and human rights groups actively working to undermine the regime.

I wrote at the time: "The North Korean Human Rights Acts is wonderful in principle. . . [But] the implementation of the Act will need to be as sensitive as the defusing of a bomb. . . [For] an all-round positive outcome for North Korea (reform without bloodshed) can only be achieved through gradual openness alongside a strategy for maintaining stability."

Kathi Zellweger of the Catholic aid organisation Caritas shared my concerns: "Regime change is what some groups of people hope for. But I believe what is happening is that very slowly the nature of the regime is changing, albeit at a very slow pace." Zellweger expressed the widely-held fear that the North Korea Human Rights Acts would lead to a tightening of the government's control of the people and of NGOs.

And indeed it did. Though "wonderful in principle" the NKHR Act (2004) might not have been "smart policy", for it caused risk to elevate to the point that Kim Jong-il's only option -- as a survivor -- was a return to isolation, centralisation and severe repression.

See: Reforming North Korea.
By Elizabeth Kendal for WEA RLC, 19 November 2004

In the above Nov 2004 posting I suggested the following: "Those things Kim jong-Il desires most of all, survival and prestige, appear to be on shaky ground . . . Maybe this is the biggest bargaining chip of all. To avoid catastrophe on the Korean Peninsula, would the US be willing to ensure Kim's survival and prestige in exchange for reforms for which Kim would of course take all credit? This would involve great humility on the part of the US. It would involve leaving justice, regarding Kim, in the hands of God. It could only be done by looking past the man, Kim jong-Il, and keeping eyes firmly fixed on the goal: the liberation and reform of North Korea, for the sake of North Korea's suffering and oppressed millions."

Like it or not, the reality is, the UN Commission of Inquiry report (Feb 2014) can only be used as leverage to get prisoners released and human rights improved if the regime is assured it will not be threatened.

So while it is commendable that the UN Commission of Inquiry report is shining a spotlight on the horrific situation inside North Korea, great wisdom -- "smart policy" -- is required. For if the situation is handled belligerently rather than with great care and wisdom -- i.e. if too much pressure is applied or if "hostile forces" use the report to fan the flames of revolution for their own political, economic and geo-strategic ends -- then we could see reforms rolling back and repression escalating to unprecedented levels. Or worse, we could see the State descend into an absolute bloodbath.


Breaking News:

South Australian man John Short detained in North Korea, now facing 15 years in jail

The Advertiser, February 20, 2014
Dr Leonid Petrov, who teaches North Korean political history at the Australian National University in Canberra, said Mr Short’s situation “could be complicated” by the release of a UN report on Monday detailing regime crimes against humanity. . .

“If he was found to be networking directly with North Koreans to spread religious material it could be very bad for him and them,” Dr Petrov said.

“For locals, the whole family would be sent to the gulag (forced labour camps) with little chance of ever being released unless they repent (their religious views).

“For the foreigner, they could face a similar sentence to Kenneth Bae of 15 years with 16-hours-a-day hard labour.”

Mr Bae, a South Korean-born US citizen, was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment in April last year for attempting to topple the Korean regime.


Elizabeth Kendal is the author of
Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah speaks to Christians today
(Deror Books, Dec 2012)