What does the future hold for North Korea?

16 Feb 2012

CSW's East Asia Team Leader, Ben Rogers, shares his insights into latest developments in North Korea and looks at what the future might hold for the world's most closed nation...

Mass mourning at the death of a leader

On 19 December 2011, the news broke that Kim Jong Il, North Korea's ruling dictator, had died. Our television screens filled with emotional scenes of crowds wailing with apparent uncontrollable grief. That this mass outpouring of mourning was orchestrated was clear. North Korean people knew that if they did not show sadness at the death of their "Dear Leader", they could face severe punishment – just one example of the totalitarian regime's absolute control of people's minds, ruling through total fear and extraordinary propaganda.

Kim Jong Il was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Un, believed to be about 29. Despite having almost no experience, he has inherited his father's role as supreme leader, in the world's only dynasty that also portrays itself as a deity. He is now the head of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers' Party, supreme commander of the North Korean army, and "the Great Successor". Third in the dynasty of rulers, he follows his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the "Great Leader", and his father, the "Dear Leader".
Propaganda stories, photographs and films were produced within weeks of the succession, portraying Kim Jong Un as a great military strategist, horse rider and sportsman.

A new era with a new leader?

Within weeks of taking over, Kim Jong Un moved to secure his power. His youth and inexperience make him potentially vulnerable, and some question whether he is simply a figurehead, and whether it is hardliners in the military who wield real power. To demonstrate his authority, he has launched a crackdown on North Koreans fleeing the country. According to news reports, border guards have shot dead several defectors, and the families of escapees have been threatened.

At the same time, Kim Jong Un has announced an amnesty for prisoners, although the number and profile of those released is still unclear. It would appear that he is trying to achieve two things at once: win the confidence of his senior Generals by appearing tough, while trying to persuade the world that he is more reasonable.

What is CSW doing in all this?

In September 2011, we launched the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), uniting over 40 human rights organisations from across Asia, Latin America, North America and Europe to campaign specifically for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity in the country.
The ICNK sent an open letter to Kim Jong Il before he died, and a letter to Kim Jong-Un when he took over. We have appealed to Kim Jong Un to close the prison camps, open up the country to international monitors and invite the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea to visit.

In November 2011, we hosted Shin Dong-hyuk, a young man born in a North Korean prison camp. He witnessed his mother and brother being executed, and endured horrific torture, before he finally escaped at the age of 23. Shin met the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Minister of State at the Foreign Office and several high-profile MPs.
Inspired by meeting Shin, Fiona Bruce MP introduced a debate on human rights in North Korea in the House of Commons, and we provided briefing for MPs.

Looking ahead, where do we go from here?

For the past two years, we have been developing a twin-track approach, combining pressure and engagement. International pressure, including a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the regime's crimes against humanity, is vital. Public awareness and protest is key to that. We must awaken the conscience of the world. At the same time, North Korea is the world's most isolated nation – our goal should be to help open it up, not keep it closed.

That is why I have been working with Lord Alton and Baroness Cox, who have travelled to Pyongyang four times since 2003 to talk to the regime. I accompanied them in October 2010, and we raised all the serious human rights concerns directly with senior officials. For many of them it was the first time a Westerner had sat across the table from them, looked them in the eye, and asked them for an answer to the stories of killing and torture in the prison camps. For us, it was a rare opportunity to talk face to face with the world's most brutal dictatorship.

In a future article, I will describe the visit to Pyongyang in more detail, and how it fits with our strategy. For now, this is a critical time for North Korea. As Kim Jong Un consolidates his power, he could either continue the repression or open up to reform. In April, the country will mark the one hundredth anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth. Will his grandson decide to change the course of the country's history and bring its misery to an end? Time will tell, but your prayers and action could make all the difference. 
Let your voice be heard by emailing Kim Jong Un today and urge him to change direction.

Ben Rogers
CSW East Asia Team Leader

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