A high level source told NKSIS on July 14th, "The more uncertainty surrounding the third generation Kim succession, the more severe has been the North's criticism against the South Korean government, and the more frequent and intense has become its use of public executions and human rights abuses."
Through instituting public executions and various forms of control, oppression has been redoubled and a sense of fear induced in the general populace. From experience, this can be seen as a sign that the regime fears that it is facing a great crisis. We can infer from this that the South Korean government's resolute harder line with the North has had an effect and the system ruling North Korea is feeling the strain.
Some might still criticize the Lee Myung-bak government's policy as ill thought out. But rather than focus on the rights and wrongs of the government's North Korea policy, the important thing is to undertake a comprehensive objective evaluation of the relative change in conditions of North Korea's system in relation to our decisions.
After the current government's more stringent North Korea policy was instituted, Kim Jong-il, possibly under the pressures caused by concurrent economic and currency crises, suffered a stroke on August 17th, 2008. At the same time the third generation regime succession of Kim Jong-un has risen to the surface. And on November 30th, 2009, in order to defray the effects of the foreign currency crisis, North Korea enacted a wholesale currency redenomination. From that time to the present, there have been monthly reports of public executions of criminals across the country's provinces. Especially of note is the punishment and execution of high level public officials.
When the economic situation was relatively steady in North Korea, public executions occurred just once every five years or so. But from the starvation of the arduous march period of the mid-1990s onwards, there were numerous deaths as the state's ultimate measure returned. The threat and terror of public execution continues in North Korea today.
The shooting of criminals in a public place before an assembled crowd has always been the subject of international criticism. The fact that capital punishment judgments and processes of execution infringe and ignore North Korea's self made and declared system of criminal law has also given rise to criticism. The international community's satellite systems are always monitoring North Korea. That events and incidents that occur within its borders can be known to the outside world within minutes has been a source of pressure on the regime.
There were thus a succession of effects. Interviews with defectors from numerous regions of the country attest that "In contrast to the latter part of the 90s when the country entered serious economic straits and public execution became commonly used as a punitive measure against various major offences, it almost disappeared from view from the mid-2000s on. Rather, it was reserved just for special crimes, narcotics dealing, and crimes of an anti-regime nature." In other words public execution greatly decreased in prevalence at this time compared with the period of the arduous march. It was a notable change when the North formally acknowledged the fact of its public executions in front of multinational delegates at the United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review in December 2009. However, a factor which must not be overlooked in this analysis is how North Korea's public finances and the economic situation of the people took a salvaging turn for the better from the year 2000 due to remittances and unconditional financial support from South Korea.
And so the situation seemed to be improving. But since the advent of the current South Korean administration and starting from 2009, news has filtered through that there has been a resurgence in the regime's use of capital punishment in front of the people. It would be wrong however to generalize and draw from that fact the conclusion that North Korea's human rights abuses are a result of the current South Korean government's tougher approach. Outside economic pressures have stimulated a growing sense of instability as North Korea attempts to establish the mechanism for the third generation Kim family succession to the leadership of the country. We must understand that this sense of instability is the cause of disputes amongst the elite power brokers as well as the deepening oppression of the people.
Between 2009 and 2011, various human rights groups such as Radio Free North Korea, Free The NK Gulag as well as the defectors themselves who are directly connected with infringements of human rights in North Korea have steadily attested to the fact that cases of public execution there are on the rise.
The Korea Institute for National Unification's '2011 North Korean Human Rights White Paper' evidentially clarified that after the currency reform and from 2010 onwards there have been public executions of criminals every month. There has been testimony that since the failure of the currency reform policy at the end of 2009, there have been public executions of those who demonstrated against the policy in North Hamgyeong province, individuals communicating information about the country's internal state of affairs to the outside world via cell phone, and of those involved in human trafficking and assisting defectors to leave North Korea.
Significantly, there has also been a rise in public executions in a purge of senior government officials. This January's secret execution of Ryu Kyung, Vice Chairman of the National Security Agency on suspicion of leaking the country's strategy against South Korea, is illustrative. Though seemingly a censure for misconduct, North Korea experts generally believe that Ryu was a sacrificial victim among elite officials as Kim Jong-un makes his mark and secures his destiny as successor.
Numerous questionable events in 2010 may have been dressed up to seem like accidents. In April, Ri Yong-cheol, First Vice Chairman of the Organization and Guidance Department died of a heart attack. He was followed in June by Ri Je-gang, First Vice Chairman of the Organization and Guidance Department who was supposed to have perished in a traffic accident. Ri Yong-cheol and Ri Je-gang were guardians to the sucessor Kim Jong-un and were rivals to Jang Song-taek, hence the grounds for considering their successive sudden demises out of the ordinary.
Then recently in April of this year there was the removal from office of Ri Je-gang's ally Ju Sang-song, former head of the North Korean People's Security Ministry. The event didn't go as far as execution but can be seen as part of the behind the scenes struggle in the process of establishing the succession of Kim Jong-un.
Another surprising turn of events is also deserving of a mention. As North Korea's economic, political, and social problems mount, we have confirmed another relatively new phenomenon. That is that North Korean security agencies, in contrast to their previous approach, have taken an open minded or comparably lax approach to those undertaking defector activities, entering South Korea, and communicating by cell phone with defectors.
Seeking to make public long sought after and hard won concrete information carries its dangers but we seek to objectively analyze and explain signally representative change.
First we have seen that agents charged with tapping into North Koreans' phone conversations have turned a blind eye to those caught talking with South Koreans, in Hambuk and Pyongbuk provinces. Also, despite having concrete evidence about the senders and receivers of aid sent to the North by defectors in the South, the security agents have not intervened. It is not clear whether orders from on high have been given to the lower agents to just deal with the issue ion bulk, but those concerned are definitely not personally related to the security agents.
In another example, a family from Hoeryong, through a defector settled in the South, has come into contact with their family in the South and received over forty payments over ten years. Again, security agents in the know appeared to have given tacit approval to the contacts. There are at least two agents who have knowledge of the remittances aged between in their late twenties to early thirties. They are even aware of the defector's Chinese cell phone number.
Moreover, there have been no reports of death penalties taken out in revenge against well known defectors groups' spokesmen and women who have made anti-regime pronouncements in the South. This, too, cannot be explained away as anything other than a light-handed response by the North Korean authorities.
Nor are the agents of the North Korean security apparatus allowing such activity only under the duress of secret oppression or with the goal of securing ever bigger bribery payments. Sources report that the sums of money being requested have not evolved beyond unrealistic levels. In the past, the agents would have been reprimanded and accused of lax discipline or anti-revolutionary tendencies. This is something of a significant change.
Of course there have also been numerous recent cases of extreme oppression of defectors and exclusion from society of defectors' families. This does not seem to match the abovementioned "generous response" by the North Korean authorities. But, if compared with the draconian dealings with defectors in the past, a change has certainly occurred.
A North Korean security-related source said, "Now there are over 20,000 defectors in South Korea. In a situation in which it's thought that number could one day exceed 50,000, the way North Korea deals with defectors has surely changed." However, this phenomenon does not necessarily indicate fundamental changes within the regime. "The North Korean authorities' systematic abuse of human rights and its hostile anti-South Korea policy is not about to change," warned the source. "It would be more correct to view this kind of response and modulated level of oppression is a temporary and accidental consequence of crossed wires within the system." The commanding authorities within the security apparatuses must have demanded the usual tough line but there has probably been confusion amongst those agents responsible for enforcement due to irregular practices and corruption.
As the country's economic difficulties have proceeded North Korea's security agencies' agents have done nothing but retain their right to summarily deal with system insecurity and maintain the status quo. They are receiving minimal food and products rations from Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. These supplies are absolutely insufficient to care for their families and combined with the bad economy is having an effect on the work of the security agents. In their monitoring and control of the people, the operational agents of the security services are indispensable to regime maintenance. But they are being insufficiently compensated for their efforts barely maintaining their sense of superiority over defectors and their families.
Meanwhile the defectors families, though insecure politically, are materially secure thanks to money sent from South Korea. So security agency personnel, living below their standard of living, have chosen the win-win scenario of sticking close to a group of people who are generally better off than themselves. The economic crisis is accelerating the tendency of the lower reaches of the security agencies toward corruption. The more widespread this development becomes, the greater the threat to Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un's system.
But as North Korea's economic situation slowly improves, the practice of "gift politics" could be resurrected. If the security agencies' enforcing organs experience an improvement in their economic treatment there could be a sudden turnaround in the situation and an opportunistic tendency to practice on the spot human rights abuses against defectors and their families. Possibility of them developing into an opposing force to the regime is still remote.
The chances of North Korea's anti-reform anti-opening up system recovering to the economic levels of the 1980s is low. Even so, it is unquestionably dangerous to return to the previous two administrations' policy of unconditional support.
We should seek to prolong the current situation in which the security agencies' order enforcing class has, through concern for their economic well-being and the want of luxury goods, become prone to corruption. There is a need for us to precisely and wisely modulate the level of pressure in our North Korea policy to maintain the current state of lax control of the regime, so that eventually these officials will have the space and conscious attitude to worry about their personal future as well as North Korea's.
As North Korea's economic and social points of insecurity increase, which is to say as disputes grow between the pre- and post-Arduous March generations, and as conflict grows between those elite power brokers involved in establishing the third generation Kim family power succession and more general arbiters of authority, the North Korean regime will be shaken.
And so, within a few years the situation will reach a point of critical mass and the number of public executions will inevitably rise. At this time, through the raising in the North Korean people's level of consciousness and pressure from the international community the level of pressure against the regime from within and without will escalate.
In the end, the third generation succession will become more susceptible to outside influence. This susceptibility is like a knife in our hand. To North Koreans, who incant the phrase 'One Minded Solidarity' at every meeting, the fear of foreign penetration is scarier than nuclear missiles and chemical and biological weapons.
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