Somehow, the worst regimes seem perpetually to enjoy the greatest benefit of the doubt, with outside observers repeatedly hanging hopes of reform on any hint of a human face at the top. For years, this has been the rule with North Korea, which goes through cycles in which shifts in the propaganda are reported with excitement in the Western press as hints of potential opening and change, or at least as entertaining kitsch. Meanwhile, North Korea’s regime carries on with its monstrous repression, slave labor camps, massive military and illicit weapons programs.
Here we go again, as reports emerge about the sprightly tastes of Kim Jong Un, third-generation heir to North Korea’s totalitarian state — a lively and smiling young tyrant, who turns out to have a mysterious young wife, and a taste for Disney characters.
What to make of this? Former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden, author of “Escape From Camp 14,” had a terrific piece in Foreign Policy, July 26: “North Korea’s Extreme Makeover.” Harden warns, “Before we allow ourselves to get too hopeful or amused, it is worth noting that North Korea remains uniquely repressive. Indeed, after seven months under Kim Jong Un, the entire country seems to have become even more of a prison than it was under his father, Kim Jong Il, not less.”
Now comes a dispatch from The Wall Street Journal, “North Korea: We’re Not Changing!” reporting that North Korea itself is refuting speculation that it might be changing in any fundamental way. The source of this claim? North Korea’s own state mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, which refers to western optimists as “idiots,” and writes: “To expect ‘policy change’ and ‘reform opening’ from the DPRK is nothing but a foolish and silly dream just like wanting the sun to rise in the west.” Yep.