Fortress Pyongyang: Kim seeks to push back outside influences

Dunya News


Fortress Pyongyang: Kim seeks to push back outside influences

SEOUL (AFP) - When he inherited power in North Korea 10 years ago, Swiss-educated basketball fan Kim Jong Un seemed open to foreign ideas and market reforms, but is increasingly shutting down outside influences as he enters his second decade in office.

North Korea has long been one of the world’s most isolated countries, with authorities seeking to maintain tight control over what information gets in or out.

These restrictions appeared to ease under Kim, who allowed the market to play a greater role in North Korea’s flagging economy, and invited an entourage of K-pop artists to perform in Pyongyang in 2018.

But the country’s situation is deteriorating under a self-imposed coronavirus blockade -- a far more comprehensive measure than any of the international sanctions it is under for its nuclear programme.

Strict rules have snapped back into place as Kim looks to reinforce internal solidarity and his grip on society during times of hardship, analysts say.

"The growing censorship suggests that the regime is less confident," said Troy Stangarone, senior director at the Korea Economic Institute.

Kim -- who spent most of his childhood in Switzerland -- had once appeared more flexible towards outside culture.

In 2012, he was shown on state television giving a thumbs up to a girl band in miniskirts playing the theme song of the American movie "Rocky", on a stage shared by a handful of Disney characters.

At the same time, he turned a blind eye to the country’s widespread black market, the "jangmadang".

The increasing role of market forces in the economy -- while officially still being decried -- saw it record its fastest expansion in 17 years in 2016, according to the Bank of Korea -- the South’s central bank.

- ‘Single-minded unity’ -

But key sectors of the economy were sanctioned by the UN Security Council the following year as North Korea tested missiles that can reach the whole of the US mainland, and carried out its most powerful nuclear test to date.

Analysts say Kim’s confidence weakened after his blockbuster diplomacy with then US president Donald Trump stalled in 2019 without sanctions relief.

The pandemic and resulting border closure saw the North record its biggest economic contraction in over two decades in 2020, according to the Bank of Korea, and earlier this year Kim warned the country was facing its "worst ever" situation.

Kim has embraced a return to a centralised economy, with the regime officially reclaiming control over all foreign trade and domestic markets at a five-yearly party congress in January.

And Pyongyang enacted a law punishing those possessing South Korean content with 15 years in jail, reports say, with the North’s state media citing Kim urging officials to remove the "vicious cancer that threatens our ideology and social system and hinders single-minded unity".

Stangarone told AFP: "In times of hardship, the regime needs to tighten control to reassert its authority."

- ‘Jangmadang Generation’ -

North Korea has long clamped down on what it calls "ideological and cultural invasion".

All radios and televisions are preset to only receive state media, while the government blocks ordinary North Koreans from accessing the global internet.

But analysts say such censorship will struggle as foreign material is already widespread within North Korea, especially among the younger generation, distributed on USB drives.

In a study by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, nearly half of the 116 people surveyed who fled North Korea in 2018 and 2019 said they had "frequently" watched Southern entertainment in the North.

Cho Han-bum, senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said the so-called "Jangmadang Generation" -- those who were born and grew up during and after the famine in the 1990s -- will likely resist the clampdown.

With the state unable to provide rations in their childhood, they grew up fending for themselves, relying on the market for survival -- and with significantly less allegiance towards the leadership, Cho said.

"A clash between Kim’s conservative approach and the North’s millennials and Generation Z -- who enjoy South Korean dramas and BTS’s music -- will be inevitable," he added.