In the space of a few days, former NBA star Dennis Rodman has flown into Pyongyang, enjoyed a basketball game with Kim Jong-un, and wormed his way into the headlines by calling the country’s supreme leader “awesome.” Never a stranger to controversy, Rodman now finds himself in the unlikely position of being the Westerner who has spent the most time with one of the world’s least understood leaders. But if we’re going to listen to the former Chicago Bull’s insights on North Korea, such as they are, we must also pay attention to the North Korean people’s voices. In my work for Liberty in North Korea, a nonprofit that works to bring North Koreans to freedom, I have met refugees who escaped the country since Kim Jong-un took power. From their testimony and other sources, it’s abundantly clear that Kim’s rule in North Korea falls well short of “awesome.”
Unlike Rodman, ordinary North Koreans risk their lives if they try to leave the country without state permission. North Korean refugees and people who work in the border regions say that getting out of the country has become much more dangerous since Kim Jong-un assumed power. Both sides of the border with China have seen major expansions of physical security, including man traps and electrified fencing, along with efforts to root out the corruption that enables those with money or connections to leave. (Refugees say that the regime justifies the massive security increase with false reports of terrorists sent by Seoul to blow up North Korean statues.) Punishments for attempted escapes may also be harsher under Kim Jong-un. The number of North Korean refugees arriving in South Korea in 2012 was down 44 percent from 2011, the last year of Kim Jong-il’s rule.
Rodman shows no awareness of the disparity between his experience as a guest and the everyday lives of North Koreans. He was able to announce his arrival in Pyongyang on Twitter, taking advantage of a 3G Internet service recently opened up to visiting foreigners. Ordinary North Koreans, by contrast, are denied all access to the Internet, because the regime knows that the Web would abolish its monopoly on ideas and threaten its survival. It has also stepped up efforts to crack down on other emergent sources of information—including Chinese mobile phones, which provide a line of communication with the outside world from the border regions, and foreign media, smuggled in on DVDs and USB sticks.
At the country’s National Security Agency last year, Kim declared: “We must extend the fight against the enemy’s ideological and cultural infiltration and psychological scheming, and must ruthlessly crush those hostile elements with their childish dreams.” Yet encouragingly, refugees report that the regime is fighting a losing battle on this front; consumption of foreign media is becoming more widespread in their communities, to the point where groups of friends are even gathering to enjoy South Korean dramas and music—developments that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
This is a ray of light in the darkness. North Korea’s humanitarian crisis shows no sign of ending anytime soon, despite a new public-relations effort promising people that they won’t have to “tighten their belts again.” Since Kim assumed power, the price of rice has doubled. The necessity for economic reform is obvious to all, but the leadership fears that it wouldn’t be able to control a more open society. Its nightmare scenario, of course, is collapse and the wholesale replacement of the ruling elite by South Korean counterparts—or perhaps an even worse fate. So North Koreans are kept in enforced poverty, the only population in Asia that remembers being better off during the Cold War than it is today.
This is the real North Korea—not Kim’s North Korea and certainly not Dennis Rodman’s. It is a country where millions have not only coped with life under the most repressive regime in the world but also begun driving grassroots change with which the leadership will eventually have to contend. What’s truly “awesome” about North Korea is the people’s resilience and strength in the face of such brutality. American media coverage of this deeply troubled country should pay less attention to addled celebrities and more to one of the greatest human struggles of our time.