WASHINGTON – 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 it did not collapse and it did not reform. For the first time in history, power in a communist state shifted from father to son, from Great Leader to Dear Leader. And Kim Jong Il was no reformer. He turned out to be even more repressive than his father was.
Now, the third generation of the Kim family dynasty, in the person of Kim Jong Eun, who is not yet 30, has cemented his absolute control by doing what daddy and granddaddy could not do: His engineers sent the payload of a three-stage rocket into orbit, defying U.N. Security Council resolutions and 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.
To that end, Kim Jong Un’s government completed a new tunnel this year for the test detonation of what would be the North’s third plutonium device and possibly for a bomb made from highly enriched uranium, according to an August report in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
The young leader has also spent lavishly this year on the family cult, funding $40 million worth of statues and paintings of his father and grandfather, according to a recent South Korean government report. Notably, imports of liquor, luxury cars and foreign appliances have spiked since 2009, when it became clear Kim Jong Un was his father’s favored son, according to a South Korean parliamentary report in October.
In the months after his father died of a heart attack, there were tantalizing hints that Kim Jong Un 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, where he played basketball, wore expensive sneakers and admired Michael Jordan. 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 in the first half of this year as a chubbily 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. As state television followed him around, he embraced small children, attended a “Mickey Mouse” performance and won global attention by showing off an attractive and well-dressed woman who turned out to be his wife. He allowed her to touch his arm in public — a stunning change from the crabby behavior of his father, whose many wives were always hidden.
Still, Kim Jong Un’s image-making and his reformist rhetoric have done little to change what his government actually 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. On the contrary, its human rights rapporteur found information that “authorities had detained officials suspected of potentially challenging or questioning a smooth leadership transition.”
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 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 functioned as a kind of hunger-relief valve, allowing traders (and a trickle of defectors) out of the country and allowing in desperately needed food, clothing and household goods.
Kim Jong Un has made it clear that he loathes defectors. He 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 twenty-something dictator in charge, the entire country is a no-exit prison camp.
Blaine Harden, a former Post reporter, is the author of “Escape From Camp 14.”