With the climate crowd wrangling in Copenhagen over how best to wreck the economy of the planet, President Obama again busy bearing witness while state thugs assault protestors in Iran, and Tiger Woods imploding 24/7, small wonder North Korea has dropped off the A-list of current crises.
After all, North Korea hasn’t conducted a nuclear test in more than six months, and it’s now more than four months since North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il posed for photos with former president Bill Clinton, when Clinton flew all the way to Pyongyang to pick up two jailed employees of Al Gore. Apart from the odd intercepted arms shipments to Iran and whatnot, North Korea just can’t compete with the thrills of the day.
But spare a moment for North Korea, where repression is so brutal and pervasive that you never hear a dissenting voice. Reports are trickling out right now of open dissent, of people cursing the authorities in public.
What’s made them so angry is a currency “reform” imposed Dec. 1 by the North Korean government. It amounts to a sudden and sweeping confiscation of much of the money saved in the form of the local currency, the won, by North Koreans who have found ways to do business inside Kim’s totalitarian state. North Koreans were given a week to trade in their old won for redeminated new won, and the state imposed limits on how much currency each person could trade in. Basically, the government has overnight attacked the country’s meager markets, turning the hard-earned savings of some of its miserably impoverished people into worthless paper.
Any government that does that is playing with dynamite. In my column this week for Forbes.com, I’ve run through the effects of similar moves in Burma, China and Indonesia. Under despotic regimes, people may suffer incredible horrors without rising up. But there is something particularly combustible about a scene in which repressed and hungry people find ways to earn some cash, to stash away a bit of money to feed their families, and hope for a better life — and the state then snatches it away.
This being North Korea, the state will undoubtedly try to crush the dissent with its usual arsenal of security forces and prison camps. But for these rumbles to be coming from inside North Korea suggests a degree of fury, and courage, which deserves whatever support the democratic world can provide to these people. At the very least, with Kim now looking for his next round of U.S. payoffs at the nuclear bargaining table, Washington’s over-eager diplomats should find some courage of their own — to just walk away. The only real answer to the nightmare of North Korea is for Kim’s regime to fall, and if there is any chance at all that his brutal currency grab has lit that fuse, it would be monstrous for Washington to do anything that might help Kim stamp it out.