For them to curse their government in public takes a lot of courage
While climate delegates are quarreling in Copenhagen, and President Barack Obama is collecting his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, an important story is unfolding in relative obscurity, in North Korea. Furious over a confiscatory currency "reform," citizens of the world's most repressive state have begun publicly criticizing their government.
It is hard to overstate just how bold a move that is. North Korea's military "is on alert for a possible civil uprising," according to a major South Korean newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo. Reports have been filtering out of North Korea that the country's markets have become arenas of protest, with traders--many of them women in their 40s and 50s--publicly cursing the North Korean authorities.
Most of these reports attribute the information to anonymous sources. That's no surprise, given that North Koreans can be condemned to starve and freeze to death in labor camps for such acts as singing a South Korean song or failing to pay fawning homage to the ubiquitous portraits of their tyrant, Kim Jong Il.
That is exactly why these signs of unrest are so important. Dissent in North Korea carries individual risks even worse than the horrors that street protesters have been braving in Iran. But the stories are credible, and they suggest that North Korea's regime is approaching a fragile moment. This comes on top of Kim's questionable health, following what is believed to have been a stroke in 2008.
President Barack Obama, and other leaders of the democratic world, have a choice. They can dismiss the rising murmurs of North Korea's stricken people, and stick with the sorry tradition of bailing out and propping up the North Korean regime via yet another round of nuclear talks and payoffs. Or they can leave Kim to struggle with this nightmare of his own making, and maybe even notch up the financial pressure to nudge North Korea's totalitarian regime toward its rightful place in history's unmarked graveyard of discarded lies.
The immediate cause of the anger sweeping North Korea is a currency "reform" that amounts to the government stealing from its own deprived population. With its priorities on bankrolling the military and the production of missiles and nuclear weapons, while its people endure repression, cold and hunger, North Korea's government has produced runaway inflation. On Dec. 1, North Korean authorities imposed a surprise plan to revalue the country's currency, the won. The plan has entailed issuing new banknotes, lopping off two zeroes, so 1,000 won becomes 10. People were given just one week to swap old money for new, after which the old notes would become worthless. A limit was placed on the amount that could be officially exchanged, effectively confiscating all individual savings worth more than about $40 at informal exchange rates.
This caused so much outrage that the government then eased up slightly, raising the limits on how much old currency people could trade for new. But even with the adjustment, many North Koreans have been left with outright state theft of their money.
North Korea's government has done this before, most recently in the early 1990s, without major ructions. But that was back in the days when money was far less important, because there were no markets.
This time is different. Back in the early-1990s, when the Soviet collapse put an end to the Russian dole, North Korea's state-run distribution system largely collapsed. The result was a famine in which an estimated 1 million or more North Koreans died. Struggling to survive, North Koreans began defying the state by doing business with each other--setting up small markets. Since then, at least some market activity has been incorporated into the system. That is what many North Koreans depend on simply to eat. That is how some have been able to salt away a little cash, and a glimmer of hope for some control over their own lives.
That is what has just come under blitz attack by the North Korean regime. And though North Korea's state secrecy allows no way to know just how many people have been hit by this state thievery, the number is clearly large. "It is serious," says a North Korean defector, Kim Kwang-Jin, an expert in North Korean finance, currently a visiting fellow at the Washington-based U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
History suggests that while tyrannized people may endure astounding hardships before rising up, state plunder of their money is a particularly explosive gambit. In late-1987, Burma's repressive junta wiped out high denomination banknotes for Burma's currency, the kyat. That wholesale state larceny lit the fuse for the massive Burmese street protests of 1988.
China's government tried a variation on this sort of sweeping confiscation in the late 1980s, paying workers with state bonds that the state did not plan to honor anytime soon. That helped fuel the huge protest movement, which burst into public view in mid-1989 as the Tiananmen Square uprising.
Indonesia beggared millions of its emerging middle class with a currency devaluation in 1997, aggravated by a bungled bank cleanup, all of which turned into a route of the rupiah. In early-1998, stripped of their purchasing power, Indonesians rioted. That led to the resignation within months of longtime dictator Suharto.
None of these stories are pleasant. In China and Burma, the authorities regained control by gunning down protestors in the streets. Only in Indonesia, where Suharto ran a relatively benign autocracy compared with such places as China, Burma and especially North Korea, did the dictator go.
But if there is any likelihood of North Koreans rising up against their government, they deserve the chance to at least make a run for it. They live under the worst government on the planet--a racketeering, weapons-vending, nuclear extortionist regime that is a menace to the world and a horror to its own captive population. Kim keeps control by running a Stalinist gulag that has swallowed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans. Citizens caught trying to flee the country have been punished with everything from time in often-lethal labor camps, to execution--in some cases carried out in public, to deter others.
Officially, as consolation for the shock of having their money suddenly snatched away by the state, North Korea's people can turn to the usual programming of breathless affirmations of Kim Jong Il's glory. That runs to such stuff as this week's report by the state-run Korean Central News Agency that the People's Security Ministry has been giving art performances showing "the firm faith and will of the people's security men to share intention and destiny with Supreme Commander Kim Jong Il." The starring acts include a male guitar quintet performing such pieces as "Let's Defend Socialism."
Meanwhile, Obama's envoy, Stephen Bosworth, has just paid a visit to Pyongyang, trying to wheedle Kim Jong Il's regime back to the nuclear bargaining table. Both presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush trod this same slippery path, providing Kim with nuclear payoffs over the years that have amounted to massive handouts of food, fuel, hard cash and diplomatic concessions. North Korea, with an unbroken record of lying and cheating on such deals, has carried on with its weapons programs, plus such stunts as counterfeiting U.S. currency, and sending sanctions-busting arms shipments to Iran. This spring, Kim welcomed Obama's arrival in the White House by conducting North Korea's second nuclear test.
Real progress in coping with North Korea would begin with the refusal to do anything more to prop up Kim Jong Il's regime. That would mean an end to the haggling, concessions and handouts. In sheer humanitarian terms, anything leading to the end of Kim's regime would be an achievement on a par with liberating the concentration camps of Nazi Germany--as the world may one day understand, when the prison camps of North Korea are finally opened to public view and shut down forever. In terms of global security, it would send a healthy message to Iran's mullahs and other tyrannical nuclear wannabes, if North Korea were to provide a graphic demonstration that building the bomb is not, after all, the fast track to lifelong rule and out-sized leverage in world politics.
For North Koreans to curse their government in public requires not only anger, but astounding courage. Give these people a chance.
I want to believe that this is the beginning of the end for the current North Korean regime, but I don't want to get my hopes up.