International pressure urging the North Korean regime to reform has been ongoing for more than thirty years. It has emanated from a variety of sources, including regional neighbors, global powerhouses like the United States and European Union, international organizations like the United Nations and more.
A great many different carrot and stick combinations have been tried. There has been appeasement, bargaining and flattery on the one hand; naming and shaming, exclusion from international organizations and sanctions on the other. Yet, North Korea has resisted it all; indeed, at times Pyongyang has even appeared to enjoy the strategic challenge of obtaining maximum benefit for minimum cost.
However, since the death of Kim Jong Il, a man who was credited with some masterful political skills to go with his hardness of heart, some of those closely monitoring the country have suggested that there might still be hope. Several incidents, they suggest, imply that a slight shift in the usual pattern of North Korean behavior could be underway.
First and foremost, they point toward April. Shortly before the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea launched a long-range rocket in commemoration. A select group of international journalists was invited to the event, which was intended as a specular tribute to the late leader. However, it rapidly unraveled, ending in splashdown in the West Sea some ninety seconds after launch.
Yet while the result was perhaps not much of a surprise, the following admittance of failure certainly was. Although it is worth remembering that Pyongyang only admitted that the satellite had failed to enter orbit, rather than that the rocket had completely disintegrated and fallen into the sea just off Baekryeong Island, never before had the country acknowledged a state-run error of such a magnitude.
Recent reports have indicated other small, almost imperceptible changes. According to the Institute of Economics and Peace’s ‘Global Peace Index’, for example, North Korea is getting less violent. It goes without saying that there are compelling reasons why this ‘ranking’ should be treated with extreme circumspection, but one related point, as reported by Daily NK in a separate article, does bear repeating.
It is that, in recent Korea Institute for National Unification research involving interviews with 230 people who escaped North Korea during 2011, only two said they had witnessed a public execution in the year of their departure. This result, the research fellow introducing it asserted, could partly be down to awareness on the part of the leadership in Pyongyang that it is no longer possible to get away with some of the more extreme human rights abuses that used to be commonplace.
If public execution were on the wane for this reason, then it could be worth noting. After all, it was way back in 2005 when the fledgling Daily NK released the first video evidence of public executions in the country, and seven years is a long time.
Conversely, of course, it may simply be that the decline in the use of public execution represents just the latest in the historical waxing and waning of the use of state terror against the wider North Korean populace, usage that has long depended upon the immediate requirements of domestic policy.
In other words, it takes more than one failed rocket launch and an anecdotal statistic about public executions to tell us anything. Therefore, we must continue to watch on carefully.
However, merely the possibility that these international efforts might be making a difference by circumscribing the carte blanche of the Kim dictatorship to infringe on the rights of the North Korean people should be enough to guarantee their indefinite continuation. Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights, pressed the importance of this chipping away at the information grip of the North Korean state just last week.
His point, one well made, was that the gaze of the international community is putting constant pressure on a North Korea which knows it must tentatively engage with outside actors if it is ever to revive its economy. This gaze must not shift.