Tuesday, December 2, 2008

North Korea returns to isolation

Date: Tuesday 2 December 2008
Subj: North Korea returns to isolation
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal

In August 2007 WEA RLC News & Analysis released a posting: "North Korea: ' . . . though your footsteps were not seen' "(LINK 1), which detailed several steps being taken on the path of north-south reconciliation towards re-unification. The purpose of that posting was to bring some positive thinking into a debate often characterised by provocative and belligerent rhetoric.

WEA RLC has 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. The State is highly militarised and its civilian population, particularly outside Pyongyang, is terribly weak due to starvation, isolation, brainwashing and repressive State-terror, making it highly unlikely that a "people's revolution" would ever be attempted, or if it were, could ever be successful. WEA RLC therefore viewed every step that increased openness, equity and engagement with the outside world as a positive step towards building a foundation upon which a brighter future could be built.

These positive steps -- such as: proliferation of public markets and cross-border trade; Korean unity under the unification flag at the Olympic Games; the May 2007 opening of the north-south cross-border rail link; and the benefits (both economic and relational) of the Kaesong Industrial Park -- were presented as "'handles' to take hold of in prayer for North Korea".

Sadly, virtually all the positive steps listed in that posting have now been reversed.

In its efforts to regain total control over people's lives (particularly their minds), the regime has been increasingly cracking down on public markets and is attempting to re-Stalinise the state. In August 2008 escalating north-south tensions led to the two Koreas competing in the Beijing Olympics under separate flags. On Monday 1 December 2008, the regime closed the north-south rail link, put an end to South Korean tours to the Mount Kumgang tourist resort, and sent about half the South Korean staff of the Kaesong Industrial Park home to South Korea.

North Korea has returned to isolation.


North Korea expert Andrei Lankov explains that North Korea's Stalinist system collapsed during the early 1990s after the fall of Communism in Europe and the break up of the USSR. Not long after North Korea lost its Soviet patron, the state lost its leader when Kim Il-sung died in 1994. The result was "unprecedented social disruption and economic disaster culminating in the Great Famine of 1996-99, with its 1 million dead". (Link 2)

According to Lankov, it was during this time that "all economic activity moved to the booming private markets. . . . The Stalinist system imploded and a new grassroots capitalism took over." The regime, says Lankov, did not approve, but could not control it, especially as high level corruption flourished.

Lankov sees the 2002 policy shift on decriminalising markets, not as a "reform" but as a simple belated tacit approval of something the government could not eradicate. But, he says, by 2004 the regime was beginning to crack down, looking for ways to turn the clock back.

Lankov concludes: "It seems that North Korean leaders believe that their system cannot survive major liberalisation. They might be correct in the pessimism. Their country faces a choice that is unknown to China and Vietnam. . . . It is the existence of South Korea . . . a rich and free country that speaks the same language and shares the same culture" (i.e. it cannot be discounted as "foreign").

Lankov writes: "Were North Korea to reform, the disparities with South Korea 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." As Lankov notes, aid has been used to bolster internal security by feeding the "politically valuable parts of the population -- such as the military or the police".

Lankov regards the real "backward movement" as starting around October 2005 when the regime re-introduced the Public Distribution System and outlawed the sale of grain in the markets. Since December 2007 only women over the age of 50 have been permitted to trade in markets. The men and younger women are being pushed back to the factories -- most of which are unprofitable or dead -- primarily, Lankov says, for the purpose of surveillance, indoctrination and control.

Border security has been stepped up. Venues where information could be exchanged are being raided and closed. There has been a crackdown on mobile phones (Link 3). In September 2007 Daily North Korea reported that a crackdown had been launched to halt the spread of religion amongst North Korean soldiers. (Link 4 - must read!)

The crackdown against the Kaesong Industrial Park is tragic. Kaesong Industrial Park -- which opened in Kaesong, North Korea, in December 2004 -- housed 88 South Korean firms and provided jobs for some 35,000 North Koreans.

Tensions escalated in mid-October around a month after rumours started to circulate about Kim Jong-Il's health (i.e., that he has suffered a stroke: Link 5). The regime in the north complained to the government in the south about South Korean NGOs sending leaflet-laden balloons across the border. The regime in the north made it clear that if the government in the south did not stop the NGOs then the North would retaliate by closing down the Kaesong Industrial Park.

Lankov believes the northern regime is using its supposed indignation over the South Korean NGO balloon-transported leaflets as a mere pretext to crack down on Kaesong after having determined that the considerable economic benefits that Kaesong provides to North Korea are not worth the risk that Kaesong presents to regime survival.

Lankov regards Kaesong as something of an anachronism: a survivor of the days of unprecedented relaxation between 2002 and 2004. "Now it seems this anachronism is not going to last, it has become too dangerous; the era of openness is well and truly over. The measure is likely to prolong the agony of North Korea . . ." (Link 6)

Lankov laments: "Hawks in Washington might hope that the decision will deprive the North Korean regime of revenue, thus bringing its end closer. But they are wrong. The regime can survive in isolation -- actually, it can survive only in isolation. Starving people do not rebel; they just die, especially when they have no idea that a different way of life is possible.

"Kaesong offered a glimmer of light, but now this is being snuffed out, to the peril of the long-suffering people of North Korea."

According to Daily North Korea (DNK), from January 2009 North Korea's markets will only open once every ten days. Sources told DNK they expect "resistance of North Korean citizens will be strong" and "the possibility of actual policy implementation is deemed low" primarily due to high-level corruption. (Link 7)

It remains to be seen if Kim Jong-Il and/or the military regime around him can successfully drag North Korea back a decade. Not everyone will submit. Will there be revolt? Will there be conflict? There will certainly be a massive increase in violent repression and death. Religious liberty is not coming to North Korea any time soon.

By Elizabeth Kendal


1) North Korea: ". . .though your footsteps were not seen".
WEA RLC News & Analysis, 24 Aug 2007
By: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal

2) North Korea dragged back to the past
By Andrei Lankov, 24 Jan 2008

3) North Korea's Regulation of Mobile Phones Led by National Security Agency
By Choi Choel Hee, 22 Feb 2008

4) Committee for Democratization of North Korea Launches an Indoctrination Document within the Army
By Kim Yong Hun, 10 Sept 2007

5) N Korean leader suffered stroke: Seoul intelligence
SEOUL (AFP), 9 Sept 2008

6) Pyongyang puts politics above dollars
Andrei Lankov, 25 Nov 2008

7) North Korean Authorities Order Markets to Open Every 10 days, from 2009
By Jeong Jae Sung, 21 Nov 2008