The cover of the latest Economist has a statue of Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, holding a wad of cash, with the legend "Change in North Korea...richer, freer, scarier". I thought they might be running another one of those pieces we've seen so many of recently, suggesting that change was just around the corner now there's a new young leader in charge - you know...educated in Switzerland, going to be a breath of fresh air, etc. etc.. But maybe we've seen the last of those by now. It's well over a year since the Fat Controller took over, and it's quite clear that in many ways the situation for many North Korean is, if anything, worse than before - especially for those living outside Pyongyang. And, recently, international relations are more strained than ever.
But no, in fact the article's a little more interesting than that:
While the Kim family dynasty, now in its third generation, seems almost immutable, the country that it rules over has altered dramatically. Instead of relying on state patronage for survival, people now hustle to make ends meet, and many of those who succeed use corruption, black markets, influence-peddling, inside information, criminality: in short, all the dark arts of an unregulated, out-of-control private economy.
Until recently, the outside world has known little about North Korean society. But during the past decade information has flowed—albeit illegally—both into and out of North Korea... Last year an American government-backed report by InterMedia, a consultancy, welcomed the deluge pouring into the North through digital media and old-style broadcasting such as Voice of America and the Korean Broadcasting System. “North Koreans can get more outside information…than ever before,” it said, “and they are less fearful of sharing that information.”
This has had two effects. First, people inside North Korea with access to outside influences can now compare their impoverished lives with others’ elsewhere. That has helped trigger a craving for the material trappings of the modern world, and the flow of such contraband goods from China to the North Korean border, orchestrated or waved on by corrupt officials. It has, says Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea at Kookmin University in Seoul, become a society where money now talks even more loudly than your relationship to the regime. “It’s a completely different society than it was 15 years ago. This has not happened because of government policy. It’s a change from below.”
Second, new information flows have given outsiders an insight into the changes taking place in North Korean society. This year, for the first time, Google and some dedicated North Korea-watchers have mapped the interior of the country, locating everything from underground railway stations to labour camps. That information will not be available to North Koreans, almost all of whom are barred from using the internet. But for outsiders it helps unravel the all-enwrapping shroud of secrecy. [...]
North Korea has long been a grotesquely unjust society. But since a famine in the late 1990s killed up to 1m people, and led to the breakdown of the system through which food was distributed around the country, experts say the state’s control over people’s lives has waned. “North Korean society has become defined by one’s relationship to money, not by one’s relationship to the bureaucracy or one’s inherited caste status,” Mr Lankov writes.
As yet there are no visible signs of protest. There appear to be no covert human-rights groups, despite the estimated 200,000 political prisoners who fester in concentration camps, and no subversive intellectuals, as in the former Soviet Union. Ms Jeon says that it never once occurred to her to risk talking about regime change. Korean experts say the lack of resistance is not only the result of brainwashing. It is because North Korea’s tradition of oppression dates back to far before the Kims: for most of the first half of the 20th century its citizens were bossed around by the Japanese, and before that by a rigid monarchy. They know of little better.
Well...it may also have much to do with the total control that the Kims have managed to enforce, at least until recently. As Christopher Hitchens noted, North Korea is George Orwell's 1984. And then there's the matter of genetic guilt: it's one thing to make the decision to resist a tyrannical regime when you've just got your own hide to worry about: it's something else altogether if you know that capture and exposure will not only see you yourself in a camp for life, but will mean your whole family - parents, children, grandchildren - will end up there as well.
Imagine the courage needed to defect, to cross over the border to China, knowing the odds against you, and the brutal reprisals if you're caught. To help imagine, watch the trailer of 48M (via), a documentary (with some reconstructed scenes) based on interviews with defectors. And remember - all the testimony, by definition, comes from survivors. They were the ones who succeeded. Many didn't.
In North Korea, no one can hear you scream.