Things In North Korea are Not Looking Up

Things In North Korea are Not Looking Up

Alexis ChapmanThursday,5 May 2016

On Friday, May 6, North Korea will begin a Workers’ Party congress, a series of forums, meetings, and celebrations of the country’s communist party. It’s the first Workers’ Party congress in 36 years and Pyongyang, the capital, is pulling out all the stops. The city has been cleaned up and decorated with banners bearing festive messages like “Let’s uphold Great Comrade Kim Jong-un’s Songun revolutionary leadership with patriotism!” Songun is the “Military First” policy instituted by current leader Kim Jong-un’s father and predecessor Kim Jong-il. Foreign journalists have been invited to cover the event and outside North Korea there is concern that Kim Jong-un’s regime will use the congress as an occasion for ramping up its scary and aggressive behavior which has already been getting markedly scarier and more aggressive lately.

With North Korea the primary fear at the moment is nuclear capabilities. This is a very real and increasingly urgent issue. Becoming a nuclear power was a goal of Kim Jong-il’s and his son has been following suit. This year alone North Korea has launched several mid range missiles (with limited success), conducted a number of nuclear tests, and launched a satellite. The current acceleration has been enough for the UN to impose new sanctions on North Korea and for China to back them. China is one of the only countries on even semi-friendly terms with North Korea, and if this relationship is weakening, then North Korea will be even more isolated from the international community.

Unfortunately, in addition to increased weapons capabilities there are other recent developments suggesting that things in North Korea might be going from worse to even worse (they passed bad a long time ago). In April, thirteen workers from a North Korean restaurant in Vietnam defected to South Korea when the restaurant closed. The closure was probably due at least in part to South Korea asking its citizens, who make up a significant portion of these restaurants’ customer base, to stop frequenting them when abroad. The restaurants are a huge source of income for North Korea’s government and the hope is that the loss of that income and the negative economic effects of the new sanctions will motivate North Korea’s government to at least cease its nuclear weapons program, if not start moving towards recognizing the basic human rights of its citizens, and generally stop being so evil. But so far Kim Jong-un has not been showing signs of doing any of those things and it remains to be seen how the regime will react if the country’s financial situation deteriorates.

Kim Jong-un has already cracked down on defectors significantly since taking power; the average yearly number has dropped from more than 2,500 in 2009, to just 1,276 last year. The 13 restaurant workers are the largest group to make it out of North Korea recently and their actions are even more notable because overseas restaurant workers rarely defect. Only North Koreans who are very loyal to the regime are allowed to work in the overseas restaurants and they leave their families at home as a sort of human collateral. The fact that these people made the difficult decision to head to South Korea when their restaurant closed rather than returning to the North could indicate that they feared reprisals for the business failing. The danger that they, and potentially their families, and defectors in general face is underscored by the fact that a Chinese priest who assisted other defectors was found dead on May 2, and many suspect he was murdered by the North Korean government.

Missile launches and the possible murder of a foreign national make it clear that North Korea’s brutal isolationism is not stopping the regime from also developing a deadly far reach. If the Workers’ Party congress turns out to be a showcase for Kim Jong-un to unveil nuclear weapons or something else that he definitely shouldn’t have, then the international community may be forced to respond, but the big question is how. So far the list of things that haven’t motivated Kim Jong-un to start acting right include: UN sanctions; the fear and suffering of many of the 25 million North Koreans living under his rule; some of the country’s most patriotic citizens deciding to flee; or the more than 25,000 active U.S. troops that are still stationed in South Korea since the Korean war (which kind of technically never ended).

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Image Credit: Elvert Barnes on Flickr

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