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North Korea’s Extreme Makeover

Pyongyang's new leading man, Kim Jong Un, is all about the lulz. But there's nothing funny about life in the world's most repressive state.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

With each news cycle, North Korea’s young dictator appears a bit more huggable. In late July, we learned that Kim Jong Un had married Comrade Ri Sol Ju, playing a poised Kate Middleton to his porcine Prince William. Together on television, we can watch the chosen couple smile, interact with happy children, and perform a lengthy inspection of an Oz-like kindergarten.

Thanks to North Korean state media, we know, too, that Kim is flirting with something that might possibly be construed as reform. He seems to have sacked a hard-line general. He could be rolling back the privileges of the army. When a missile launched fizzled, he didn’t lie about it. In April, four months after his father died, he delivered a speech that suggested economic change could solve food shortages. He didn’t dwell on details, but his government seems to have dispatched 200 officials to study Chinese-style capitalism. He has reportedly sent about 40,000 technicians, seamstresses, and mechanics to work in China on industrial training visas.

For a 20-something supreme leader, Kim’s feel for small-ball symbolism seems unusually shrewd — and seductive to Westerners. He allowed women to wear pants at public events. In the company of the smartly dressed woman we now know to be his wife, he enjoyed a live Mickey Mouse performance and gave a thumbs-up to a concert rendition of the theme from "Rocky."

This clearly calculated narrative has performed public relations magic. Around the world, inquiring minds are eager for more images. Kim Jong Un is "trending" and headline writers are creating eye-candy for the Web. A headline from MSN Now teases "Sorry, ladies, your favorite North Korean dictator is off the market." We are devouring thinly sourced reports about the self-possessed "mystery woman" turned first lady. In the process, the world’s last totalitarian state has received a soft-focus, Entertainment Tonight makeover.

Before we allow ourselves to get too hopeful or amused, it is worth noting that North Korea remains uniquely repressive. Indeed, after seven months under Kim Jong Un, the entire country seems to have become even more of a prison than it was under his father, Kim Jong Il, not less.

As many as 20,000 North Korean troops have been sent to seal the Chinese border; defections have declined sharply. It is now much more difficult for would-be defectors and smugglers to bribe their way out of (or back into) North Korea. If the lockdown continues, this would be a fundamental change in what for more than a decade had been a semi-permeable border region, where a few North Koreans could dash to freedom and many others could fetch food, clothing and video gadgets that helped to improve lives and increase the flow of information.

While Kim Jong Un and his wife trot around for televised inspections of miniature golf courses, there appears to be no significant change in the infamous political labor camps that have existed in North Korea for more than half a century. At a conference I attended in Washington in April, human rights groups and U.S. government officials identified at least five large camps containing between 135,000 and 200,000 prisoners. In these camps, the existence of which the North Korean government has denied, but which are plainly visible in satellite images on Google Earth, inmates are routinely murdered, starved, and worked to death, according to a growing number of eyewitnesses. It all happens without trial and in secret, with camps survivors saying that they were taken away from their homes at night and that they learned of their purported crime after months or years inside a camp. The South Korean government recently funded a similar study that detailed the torture and abuse of 200 defectors who survived the camps.

One of the principal eyewitnesses to the operation of these camps is Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have been born and raised in a camp and to escape to the West. In interviews with me and with many others, he has said that guards at his birthplace, Camp 14, ordered inmates to marry and to breed children, who were then taught by guards to be slaves and snitches. Before his escape in 2005, Shin was a slave and an informer. He says he tattled on his own mother for planning an escape — a betrayal that resulted in her execution. More recent camp survivors who have defected to South Korea (and there was a regular flow of them until this year) report no changes in camp operations.

Human rights has become a white-hot issue on the Korean Peninsula since Kim Jong Un took over in December. After the South Korean funded report on the camps was released in May, the country’s president, Lee Myung-bak, told U.S. lawmakers that human rights abuses in the North are more important than missiles or nuclear weapons. For this, state-controlled media in Pyongyang mocked him and called him a "rat."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pointedly singled out Kim Jong Un’s opportunity to end the abuses. "This young man, should he make a choice that would help bring North Korea into the 21st century, could go down in history as a transformative leader," Clinton told reporters in June. "Or he can continue the model of the past and eventually North Korea will change, because at some point people cannot live under such oppressive conditions — starving to death, being put into gulags, and having their basic human rights denied."

There have been no hints that her message is now welcome in Pyongyang. Indeed, human rights seems as irritating to the new leader as it was to his father, who used the state-controlled press to announce that "there is no ‘human rights issue’ in this country, as everyone leads the most dignified and happy life." In May, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency struck back, calling the United States "the worst rogue state in terms of human rights abuses." It labeled as "human scum" defectors who tell stories about horrors in the camps.

Meanwhile, in North Korean schools, the core curriculum continues to instruct kindergarten students in the art of beating up dummy U.S. soldiers. "We love playing military games knocking down the American bastards," said a poster showing children with bayonets attacking a bleeding American soldier, spotted in June by an Associated Press reporter.

Given the abiding abuses and the steady drip of poisonous internal propaganda, do scattered hints at economic and social reform amount to anything real? Is there any meaning behind the near-daily release of warm fuzzies featuring Kim Jong Un and wife? Maybe. If Chinese-style economic reform does come to North Korea, as many outside analysts have been hopefully predicting for years, then it is possible that millions of impoverished people could find real jobs that paid real salaries. They could afford to buy food instead of eating tree bark.

That would go a long way toward solving the country’s most important human rights issue — chronic hunger for millions. For years, the U.N. World Food Program has said that malnutrition and stunting afflicts nearly a third of the population.

But it is still much too early to predict any of this could happen. In the meantime, we should not allow ourselves to be manipulated by images of the jowly young leader and his nicely dressed wife at amusement parks. Until he proves otherwise, Kim is still very much his father’s son.

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