Immediately following Kim Jong-il’s death, experts in international relations worried that the regime in North Korea would implode, leading to a massive humanitarian and political crisis. Instead, thus far, the opposite has occurred, with Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, easily assuming control over the world’s last Stalinist state.
Already the younger son’s reign is markedly different than his paranoid father’s. Indeed, in many respects, it hearkens back to the time of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, and the era of prosperity under the auspices of Soviet-largesse.
But does the opening of theme parks, the creation of new pop bands, or the importation of Disney characters really signal a change in the world’s most horrific regime in terms of human rights abuses? The question is of great importance to both academics and diplomats alike because, if pursued in earnestness, the new tone in the DPRK should be encouraged, along with economic reform and openness; however, if it is all just more smoke and mirrors, then the West will not want to encourage the perpetuation of such a monstrous regime.
Rationing and price controls were scrapped at one point in the past; however, this reform was ineffective as there was nothing to ration as the official state channels for consumer goods had collapsed. In 2009 the revaluation of the won was in essence the confiscation and seizure of profits made mainly through black markets in which people bought the goods formerly rationed and controlled. Rather than being produced in North Korea, most of the black market goods available are from China.
The other fear with engaging North Korea in trade is that it could enrich a few and create an entrenched phalanx of cadres whose lifestyles depend on the continuation of the Kim dynasty.
Even though the face of the regime has changed, the horrors behind the curtains remain: namely, executions for improper mourning of Kim Jong-il, death sentences for traveling to China, as well as death for engaging in trade or commerce.
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