North Korean authorities are initiating a fresh crackdown to reassert public security and order in what Daily NK calls “an uncomfortable mish-mash of enhanced controls over civilian behavior.” The move appears to reflect official anxiety at the spear of new media and the availability of cell phones from China.
“They are gathering people by factory, school and people’s unit and telling them to write letters confessing precisely what foreign media they have viewed up to now,” a source told Daily NK. “When they give you the paper they warn you, saying they know everything anyway so just write it down; when, where and what you saw, where and from whom you got it, and your impression of it.” “They are looking into the use of Chinese cell phones at the same time,” the source added.
The news is at odds with much Western media commentary suggesting that Kim Jong Un’s taste in Disney schmaltz is an indicator of reformist instincts.
Women on North Korean state TV wore high heels and miniskirts while he sat in the audience. Disney characters, the cultural export of a country North Korea has long demonized, danced onstage. The not-yet-30-year-old Kim, since taking over from father in December 2011, frolicked with school children and was photographed on a rollercoaster with a British diplomat, signaling a level of international openness never seen under the stern Kim Jong Il. He found a pretty wife, Ri Sol Ju, whom the New York Times equated with Britain’s Kate Middleton.
Suggestions that Pyongyang is about to launch a new economic policy based on China’s Market-Leninist model “only fuel speculation that junior Kim is serious about change,” Cha writes for Foreign Policy. But the signs could equally well be interpreted to suggest that another outburst of regime aggression is imminent and that hardliners are resurgent:
Infighting within the regime is likely intensifying, manifested in the surprise sacking in July of the country’s top military general, Ri Yong-ho. Some interpret Ri’s departure as evidence of the young reform-minded Kim trying to usurp power from the hard-line military. It appears, however, that Kim might be trying to redirect the money the military earns through lucrative business activities toward his own patronage networks. ….
Even if Kim successfully consolidates power, he needs a new ideology in order to demand the blind obedience that characterized his father and grandfather’s rule. He appears to be downgrading, not celebrating the military, so he cannot copy his father’s “military-first” ideology.
Nevertheless, “elements of modernity are starting to seep in,” notes Cha, a Georgetown University professor and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There are now more than a million cell-phone subscribers in North Korea, and thousands surf the web, though the content remains highly circumscribed,” he observes. ‘Markets, cell phones, and the Internet are a slippery slope. Once they enter a society, they become impossible to uproot.”
But North Korea remains “at a dead end,” he concludes:
New leadership exercising a more rigid ideology seeks greater control over an increasingly independently-minded society and disgruntled elements of the military. This is not sustainable. With true reform, North Korea would open itself up to foreign influences and create an immediate spiral of expectations in its society that it could not control. Which is exactly why, with apologies to Mickey Mouse and Christian Dior, it’s just not going to happen.