It’s been a decade since Kim Jong-un took power in North Korea after the death of his father, the ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il, of a heart attack on December 17, 2011. After the mandatory mass hysteria that broke out at the funeral as he passed through the snowy streets of Pyongyang, and after a six-month mourning, the young heir began his ‘reign’ with an air of renewal. But ten years later, and after the failure of the summits with Trump for his nuclear disarmament, he is taking advantage of the coronavirus to further close his country, burying the hopes for change that had fueled the succession.
In those first moments it was thought that Kim Jong-un,
who had not yet turned 30 and had been educated in Switzerland, would open the economy on the Chinese model and relax the tight social control of his father. But his reforms came for more mundane and anecdotal aspects. For starters, in the summer of 2012 he attended a concert with Disney dolls dancing to Rocky’s music while scenes from Dumbo and Beauty and the Beast were projected. And, unlike his father, he introduced his wife, Ri Sol-ju, to society, wearing elegant blazer suits with a knee-length skirt and even a Dior bag worth more than a thousand euros.
In addition, he turned a blind eye to the ‘street markets’ (‘Jangmadang’) that were proliferating throughout the country to alleviate the shortage of the planned state economy with items smuggled in from the border with China. Thanks to these timid attempts of a capitalist economy, allowed thanks to the prevailing corruption, the North Korean Gross Domestic Product (GDP) registered in 2016 its highest growth in the last two decades, according to the calculations of the Central Bank of South Korea. As this correspondent in Pyongyang was able to verify that same year, the economic situation had improved markedly since the first visit in 2007. Both in the second trip, in 2013, and in 2016, a certain spirit was appreciated among the North Korean elite. entrepreneur and consumer who was given free rein in special supermarkets much better assorted than the state grocery stores. Paying with euros, dollars, yuan or yen, instead of state coupons, they could buy bottles of Hennessy cognac there for 250 euros and large chunks of frozen meat brought from Australia.
Despite this new economic development policy, called ‘Byongjin’, Kim Jong-un He continued with his military program and his father’s ‘atomic diplomacy’ to reopen negotiations with the United States. In addition to raising the war tension with South Korea in its first two years, between April 2013 and September 2017 it ordered four atomic tests and, in total, it has fired a hundred missiles of all kinds, including intercontinental missiles theoretically capable of reaching the US with a nuclear warhead.
In order to get rid of the international sanctions imposed by its atomic provocations and to integrate itself into the world, in 2018 it began the thaw with South Korea and fanned hopes of change in its summits with Trump that same year and in 2019. But its failure by not reaching a verifiable nuclear disarmament agreement once again isolated North Korea.
In any case, the worst would come later and it would not be because of the blockade imposed by the sanctions, but because of the total sealing of borders decreed after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in China in January last year. With the country closed tightly since then, the economy has suffered its biggest contraction in two decades as trade with China was completely interrupted, where 80 percent of the products consumed in North Korea entered. Earlier this year, Kim Jong-un shocked the world by admitting ruefully that the country is facing its “worst crisis,” raising fears of a famine like the one that cost between 300,000 and two million lives in the mid-1990s. .
“Like his father, Kim Jong-un prioritizes strengthening his iron fist at the expense of the rights and well-being of his people,” Lina Yoon, an analyst at Human Rights Watch (HRW) expert on North Korea, denounced in a statement. . Although the regime assures that it has not suffered a single death from Covid-19, knowing what is really happening inside is as difficult today as it was a decade ago.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism