By Greg Scarlatoiu
North Korea recently announced a special amnesty to prisoners, the first in over six years, to be issued beginning on February 1, in observance of Kim Jong-il’s birthday on February 16 and in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung. The announcement came only two days after the January 8 birthday of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s recently anointed leader. For the almost 63 years that have passed since its establishment, North Korea has been under the rule of three generations of the Kim clan. While his father had 20 years to prepare and was 52 years old when he assumed leadership in 1994, Kim Jong-un barely had 3 years to prepare, and is only 28 or 29 years old. Despite enjoying the protection of hardline senior, including his uncle Jang Sung-taek and aunt Kim Kyong-hui, and the apparent support of the Korean People’s Army, Workers’ Party and security agencies, experts’ predictions regarding his long-term survival are not buoyant.
The amnesty announced to honor the two late Kims may be intended to present Kim Jong-un as a dutiful son and grandson, cherishing the legacy of his ancestors by benevolently granting favors to the masses. The true intent of the amnesty may be to release certain officials imprisoned during the purge conducted while hasty preparations were being made towards hereditary succession, beginning in early 2009. Purge victims included Pak Nam-gi, director of the Planning and Finance Department in the Workers Party, Moon Il-bong, head of finance, ex-minister of railways, Kim Yong-sam, and Ryu Kyong, the deputy director of the State Security Department. All were executed by firing squad. The broader amnesty may be intended to camouflage the release of certain individuals, secured as the result of a compromise reached behind the scenes to consolidate support for the hereditary transmission of power. If not concealed by a more extensive amnesty, the release of imprisoned officials who were previously deemed unreliable or even hostile may be interpreted as a sign of weakness, something to be avoided at all costs.
Certainly, if there is one place on the face of the earth that can benefit from a genuine amnesty, that is North Korea. There are 200,000 political prisoners held without charge or trial in brutal and harrowing conditions in North Korea’s gulags. Most of them have been imprisoned for having attempted to leave the country, for trying to survive by trading in North Korea’s informal markets, or for other political or religious reasons. Although highly desirable, the Kim regime will be reluctant to release a significant number of political prisoners, for two main reasons: first, North Korea doesn’t admit the existence of its political prisoners and gulags; second, Pyongyang is already struggling with a hastily arranged hereditary succession process, and the last thing it needs on its task list is having to manage the release of political prisoners.
It is not clear how many prisoners North Korea will release, or what types of offenses will be forgiven. North Korea is a ruthless human rights violator, a country where fundamental manifestations of humanity, including speaking one’s mind, cracking a joke, practicing a religion, or trading at an open market have been criminalized. Nevertheless, real, hardened criminals are also very likely to exist. If the announced amnesty results in the release of genuine common delinquents before the expiration of their prison terms, it will not enhance Kim Jong-un’s popularity among ordinary North Koreans.
Supported by hard-liners, Kim Jong-un may have been involved in the nuclear test and missile launches of 2009, the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan on March 26, 2010, and the shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island on November 23, 2010. Kim Jong-un’s youth is a great disadvantage and he draws his legitimacy exclusively from being his father’s son. However, he is too young to be held responsible for much of his father’s brutal legacy, including his having masterminded acts of terrorism such as the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, the 1983 Rangoon bombing, or the abduction of citizens of South Korea, Japan, and other countries.
Although unacceptable from the viewpoint of North Korean hawks not keen on ending the brutal repression of North Korea’s population, granting amnesty to some political prisoners would garner positive international reactions. Burma released some 200 political prisoners in late 2011 and 300 in January 2012—the largest political prisoner release ever in Asia. The subsequent international reaction indicates that, while they result in intensified international calls for the release of all political prisoners, mass releases have the potential to end isolation and open the door for constructive dialogue with the international community and visits by senior foreign officials. While he could certainly benefit from such developments, Kim Jong-un’s dilemma is that he will be unable to depart from his father’s legacy until he has fully established himself as the new ruler of North Korea. The longer he spends strengthening his position based on the same system of brutal repression, the less of a chance he will have to break away from his father’s legacy and move North Korea towards becoming a more humane society. Kim Jong-un’s window of opportunity to become a truly “magnanimous comrade” is closing fast.
Greg Scarlatoiu is the Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Mohamed Syazwan Jamaludin’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.