Today’s New York Times article featuring interviews with a handful of North Koreans visiting China should throw a big pail of cold water on the excessive hopes expressed by so many who think that the new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is likely to transform the country he inherited, like a piece of furniture or real estate, from the previous dictator, his dad Kim Jong-il. Like other dictatorial spawn–including, lest we forget, Bashar Assad–the younger Kim has taken a few stylistic steps to distinguish himself from the old man. These include allowing women in Pyongyang to wear Western-style clothes and backing amusement parks for the elite. Young Kim is even speaking in public, something his father famously refused to do.
But the conditions of the vast majority of North Koreans remain grim. As the Times article notes, “The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.” The Times reporter quotes a middle-aged woman known as Mrs. Kim: “Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” Ordinary North Koreans, even relatively privileged ones like her, spend much of their time simply trying to scrounge up enough food to survive. The article sums up conditions thus: “Emaciated beggars haunt train stations, they said, while well-connected businessmen continue to grow rich from trading with China and government officials flourish by collecting fines and bribes.”
You can read more about what life is like in North Korea in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s fine new book, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.” Sadly, we cannot expect real change as long as Kim remains in power because he knows that a serious opening will jeopardize the good life that he has inherited. To expect otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking.