The 2018 inter-Korean summit ended with a tangible outcome. The “Panmunjom Declaration,” which emphasized “a new start to inter-Korean relations, peace and prosperity” continues to inspire those yearning for unification and peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Through the summit, North Korea indicated to the international community that it desires to turn itself into a normal state and become recognized as an equal member of the international community. Moreover, North Korea experts say that the summit has confirmed, to a certain extent, Kim Jong Un’s intention to become the leader of a “normal state.” What, then, must North Korea do to achieve this?
The central tenet of Juche Ideology, the foundation of North Korean society, is that “People are the masters of everything and decide everything.” That “people are the masters of everything” implies that members of society have freedom of choice in the spheres of society and life, and that individuals should decide freely and responsibly about the choices they have.
But is North Korea a society in which its people can make decisions freely? That it is not so is a long-held argument made by international human rights organizations and the international community at large. North Koreans do not have the freedom to travel, for example. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
There are reports that North Korea has lowered the requirements needed to receive visas for travel abroad, however, ordinary North Koreans in general cannot dream of traveling abroad nor do they enjoy the right to freely travel within their own country.
According to sources in North Korea, the country has instead recently tightened restrictions over the travel of its citizens. North Koreans are particularly finding it more difficult to move between Pyongyang and the areas along the North Korea-Chinese border.
A Daily NK source in North Pyongan Province recently stated that the inter-Korean summit has made it more difficult than usual for North Koreans to receive travel documents, and that even those who received travel documents were forced to cancel their plans until after the end of the inter-Korean summit.
Moreover, a “special week of preparation” for Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15 was delayed, which effectively means that all travel has been restricted until after early May. As a result of these restrictions on travel, many North Koreans have had to cancel or delay trips they had planned, for example, to attend weddings, or to conduct business.
One North Korean woman living in Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, reportedly received the required travel documents to visit her husband at a correctional labor camp in Chungsan, South Pyongan Province, but the local police and Ministry of State Security official pressured her not to go. As a result, she ended up eating the food she had taken pains to prepare for her husband. The travel restrictions caused a significant burden for her, as she is supporting her children by herself.
In another example, the daughter of a local food administration unit employee living in Manpo, Chagang Province, planned to hold a wedding at home before leaving for her husband’s home to receive a wedding gift. (North Koreans still continue the tradition of having the groom receive a gift at the bride’s house followed by the bride receiving a gift at the groom’s house). However, his daughter and her soon-to-be husband were prevented from getting on the train at the train station and the wedding, which was planned for April 29, had to be cancelled.
According to the source, the April 27 inter-Korean summit has ultimately led to more restrictions on travel handed down by the country’s leadership and caused pandemonium at train stations and the surrounding areas.
By tightening control over the travel of its citizens, North Korea has in effect placed an emphasis on maintaining the status quo rather than moving to “democratize” its society. The regime must understand the reasons why the same cycles of abnormality and failure in its society have continued over the past 70 years. A failure to address these cycles may ultimately lead to the country becoming a failed state.
Traditional North Korean socialism is based on the interests of the political and economic elite, who are intent on maintaining their privileged status. North Korea’s failure to move away from its rigid dictatorship-based socialism, which tramples on the freedom and rights of the large majority of its people, means that it still has a long road to go before becoming a “normal state.”