North Korea's Extreme Makeover

Pyongyang's new leading man, Kim Jong Un, is all about the lulz. But there's nothing funny about life in the world's most repressive state.

With each news cycle, North Korea's young dictator appears a bit more huggable. In late July, we learned that Kim Jong Un had married Comrade Ri Sol Ju, playing a poised Kate Middleton to his porcine Prince William. Together on television, we can watch the chosen couple smile, interact with happy children, and perform a lengthy inspection of an Oz-like kindergarten.

Thanks to North Korean state media, we know, too, that Kim is flirting with something that might possibly be construed as reform. He seems to have sacked a hard-line general. He could be rolling back the privileges of the army. When a missile launched fizzled, he didn't lie about it. In April, four months after his father died, he delivered a speech that suggested economic change could solve food shortages. He didn't dwell on details, but his government seems to have dispatched 200 officials to study Chinese-style capitalism. He has reportedly sent about 40,000 technicians, seamstresses, and mechanics to work in China on industrial training visas.

For a 20-something supreme leader, Kim's feel for small-ball symbolism seems unusually shrewd -- and seductive to Westerners. He allowed women to wear pants at public events. In the company of the smartly dressed woman we now know to be his wife, he enjoyed a live Mickey Mouse performance and gave a thumbs-up to a concert rendition of the theme from "Rocky."

This clearly calculated narrative has performed public relations magic. Around the world, inquiring minds are eager for more images. Kim Jong Un is "trending" and headline writers are creating eye-candy for the Web. A headline from MSN Now teases "Sorry, ladies, your favorite North Korean dictator is off the market." We are devouring thinly sourced reports about the self-possessed "mystery woman" turned first lady. In the process, the world's last totalitarian state has received a soft-focus, Entertainment Tonight makeover.

Before we allow ourselves to get too hopeful or amused, it is worth noting that North Korea remains uniquely repressive. Indeed, after seven months under Kim Jong Un, the entire country seems to have become even more of a prison than it was under his father, Kim Jong Il, not less.

As many as 20,000 North Korean troops have been sent to seal the Chinese border; defections have declined sharply. It is now much more difficult for would-be defectors and smugglers to bribe their way out of (or back into) North Korea. If the lockdown continues, this would be a fundamental change in what for more than a decade had been a semi-permeable border region, where a few North Koreans could dash to freedom and many others could fetch food, clothing and video gadgets that helped to improve lives and increase the flow of information.

While Kim Jong Un and his wife trot around for televised inspections of miniature golf courses, there appears to be no significant change in the infamous political labor camps that have existed in North Korea for more than half a century. At a conference I attended in Washington in April, human rights groups and U.S. government officials identified at least five large camps containing between 135,000 and 200,000 prisoners. In these camps, the existence of which the North Korean government has denied, but which are plainly visible in satellite images on Google Earth, inmates are routinely murdered, starved, and worked to death, according to a growing number of eyewitnesses. It all happens without trial and in secret, with camps survivors saying that they were taken away from their homes at night and that they learned of their purported crime after months or years inside a camp. The South Korean government recently funded a similar study that detailed the torture and abuse of 200 defectors who survived the camps.

One of the principal eyewitnesses to the operation of these camps is Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have been born and raised in a camp and to escape to the West. In interviews with me and with many others, he has said that guards at his birthplace, Camp 14, ordered inmates to marry and to breed children, who were then taught by guards to be slaves and snitches. Before his escape in 2005, Shin was a slave and an informer. He says he tattled on his own mother for planning an escape -- a betrayal that resulted in her execution. More recent camp survivors who have defected to South Korea (and there was a regular flow of them until this year) report no changes in camp operations.

Human rights has become a white-hot issue on the Korean Peninsula since Kim Jong Un took over in December. After the South Korean funded report on the camps was released in May, the country's president, Lee Myung-bak, told U.S. lawmakers that human rights abuses in the North are more important than missiles or nuclear weapons. For this, state-controlled media in Pyongyang mocked him and called him a "rat."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pointedly singled out Kim Jong Un's opportunity to end the abuses. "This young man, should he make a choice that would help bring North Korea into the 21st century, could go down in history as a transformative leader," Clinton told reporters in June. "Or he can continue the model of the past and eventually North Korea will change, because at some point people cannot live under such oppressive conditions -- starving to death, being put into gulags, and having their basic human rights denied."

There have been no hints that her message is now welcome in Pyongyang. Indeed, human rights seems as irritating to the new leader as it was to his father, who used the state-controlled press to announce that "there is no ‘human rights issue' in this country, as everyone leads the most dignified and happy life." In May, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency struck back, calling the United States "the worst rogue state in terms of human rights abuses." It labeled as "human scum" defectors who tell stories about horrors in the camps.

Meanwhile, in North Korean schools, the core curriculum continues to instruct kindergarten students in the art of beating up dummy U.S. soldiers. "We love playing military games knocking down the American bastards," said a poster showing children with bayonets attacking a bleeding American soldier, spotted in June by an Associated Press reporter.

Given the abiding abuses and the steady drip of poisonous internal propaganda, do scattered hints at economic and social reform amount to anything real? Is there any meaning behind the near-daily release of warm fuzzies featuring Kim Jong Un and wife? Maybe. If Chinese-style economic reform does come to North Korea, as many outside analysts have been hopefully predicting for years, then it is possible that millions of impoverished people could find real jobs that paid real salaries. They could afford to buy food instead of eating tree bark.

That would go a long way toward solving the country's most important human rights issue -- chronic hunger for millions. For years, the U.N. World Food Program has said that malnutrition and stunting afflicts nearly a third of the population.

But it is still much too early to predict any of this could happen. In the meantime, we should not allow ourselves to be manipulated by images of the jowly young leader and his nicely dressed wife at amusement parks. Until he proves otherwise, Kim is still very much his father's son.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images


China's Military Moment

A window of opportunity is closing in the South China Sea. Will Beijing strike?

Read more about the 5 flashpoints of the South China sea here. 

Beguiled by undersea oil and gas deposits and the weakness of fellow claimants to the Paracel Islands, China launched a naval offensive to seize the disputed archipelago. To justify its actions, Beijing pointed to history -- notably Ming Dynasty Adm. Zheng He's visits to the islands in the 15th century -- while touting its "indisputable sovereignty" over most of the South China Sea.

Chinese vessels carrying amphibious troops and operating under fighter cover from nearby Hainan Island engaged a South Vietnamese flotilla bereft of air support. One Vietnamese destroyer escort lay at the bottom of the South China Sea following the daylong battle. China's flag fluttered over the islands.

The skirmish was real -- and the date was Jan. 17, 1974.

History may not repeat itself exactly, but it sure rhymes. Back then, China exploited South Vietnamese weakness to seize the Paracels. Now, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has announced plans to station a military garrison at Sansha, a newly founded city on the 0.8 square-mile Woody Island in the Paracels. Formally established on July 24, Sansha will act as China's administrative center for the Paracel and Spratly islands and adjoining waters.

This is the latest move in China's campaign to consolidate its claim to all waters and islands within a "nine-dashed line" that encloses most of the South China Sea, including large swaths of Southeast Asian countries' exclusive economic zones (EEZs). This month, a Chinese frigate ran aground in the Philippine EEZ after reportedly shooing away Filipino fishermen. That incident came on the heels of a late June announcement that PLA Navy units would commence "combat-ready patrols" of contested waters.

Beijing is reaching for its weapons once again. Unlike in 1974, however, Chinese leaders are doing so at a time when peacetime diplomacy seemingly offers them a good chance to prevail without fighting. I call it "small-stick diplomacy" -- gunboat diplomacy with no overt display of gunboats.

Chinese strategists take an extraordinarily broad view of sea power -- one that includes nonmilitary shipping. In 1974, propagandists portrayed the "Defensive War for the Paracels" (as the conflict is known in Chinese) as the triumph of a "people's navy," lavishly praising the fishermen who had acted as a naval auxiliary. Fishing fleets can go places and do things to which rivals must respond or surrender their claims by default. Unarmed ships from coast-guard-like agencies constitute the next level. And the PLA Navy fleet backed by shore-based tactical aircraft, missiles, missile-armed attack boats, and submarines represents the ultimate backstop.

Beijing can solidify its hold within the nine-dashed line by dispatching surveillance, fisheries, or law-enforcement ships to protect Chinese fishermen in disputed waters, stare down rival claimants, and uphold Chinese domestic law. And it can do so without overtly bullying weaker neighbors, giving extraregional powers a pretext to intervene, or squandering its international standing amid the anguish and sheer messiness of armed conflict. Why jettison a strategy that holds such promise?

Because small-stick diplomacy takes time. It involves creating facts on the ground -- like Sansha -- and convincing others it's pointless to challenge those facts. Beijing has the motives, means, and opportunity to resolve the South China Sea disputes on its terms, but it may view the opportunity as a fleeting one. Rival claimants like Vietnam are arming. They may acquire military means sufficient to defy China's threats, or at least drive up the costs to China of imposing its will. And Southeast Asians are seeking help from powerful outsiders like the United States. Although Washington takes no official stance on the maritime disputes, it is naturally sympathetic to countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Some, like the Philippines, are treaty allies, while successive U.S. administrations have courted friendly ties with Vietnam.

Chinese leaders thus may believe they must act now or forever lose the opportunity to cement their control of virtually the entire South China Sea. More direct methods may look like the least bad course of action -- whatever the costs, hazards, and diplomatic blowback they may entail in the short run.

China's motives have remained remarkably constant over the decades. Indeed, the map on which the nine-dashed line is inscribed is an artifact from the 1940s, not something dreamed up in recent years. Chiang Kai-shek's government published it before fleeing to Taiwan, and the Chinese communist regime embraced it.

Now as then, the map visually expresses China's interests and aspirations. Oil and natural gas deposits thought to lie in the seabed obsessed maritime proponents -- most notably Deng Xiaoping, the father of China's economic reform and opening project. Fuel and other raw materials remain crucial to China's national development project three decades after Deng launched it.

The motive of averting superpower encirclement has also influenced Chinese strategy. By the late 1970s, Deng had come to believe that the Soviet Union was pursuing a "dumbbell strategy" designed to entrench the Soviet navy as the dominant force in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. The Strait of Malacca was the bar connecting the two theaters. To join them, Moscow had negotiated basing rights in united Vietnam, at Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang. Beijing believed it had to forestall a Soviet-Vietnamese alliance. Indeed, the PLA undertook a cross-border assault into Vietnam in 1979 in large part to discredit Moscow as Hanoi's defender.

Beijing may view the 2007 U.S. maritime strategy -- the official U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard statement on how the sea services see the strategic environment and intend to manage it -- as a throwback to Moscow's dumbbell strategy, predicated as it is on preserving and extending American primacy in the Western Pacific and the greater Indian Ocean. Chinese strategists fret continually about American encirclement, especially as the United States "pivots" to Asia. For China, it seems, everything old is new again.

Nor should we overlook honor as a motive animating Beijing's actions. Recouping China's honor and dignity after a "century of humiliation" at the hands of seaborne conquerors was a prime mover for Chinese actions in 1974 and 1979. It remains so today. The China seas constitute part of what the Chinese regard as their country's historical periphery. China must make itself preeminent in these expanses.

Expectations are sky-high among the Chinese populace. Having regularly described their maritime territorial claims as a matter of indisputable sovereignty, having staked their own and the country's reputation on wresting away control of contested expanses, and having roused popular sentiment with visions of seafaring grandeur, Chinese leaders will walk back their claims at their peril. They must deliver -- one way or another.

And they have the means to do so. China has amassed overpowering naval and military superiority over any individual Southeast Asian competitor. The Philippines possesses no air force to speak of, while retired U.S. Coast Guard cutters are its strongest combatant ships. Vietnam, by contrast, shares a border with China and fields a formidable army. Last year, Hanoi announced plans to buttress its naval might by purchasing six Russian-built Kilo­-class diesel submarines armed with wake-homing torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles. A Kilo squadron will supply Vietnam's navy a potent "sea-denial" option. But Russia has not yet delivered the subs, meaning that Hanoi can mount only feeble resistance to any Chinese naval offensive. That's still more reason for China to lock in its gains now, before Southeast Asian rivals start pushing back effectively.

So a window of opportunity remains open for Beijing -- for now. Chinese diplomacy recently thwarted efforts to rally ASEAN behind a "code of conduct" in the South China Sea. Washington has announced plans to "rebalance" the U.S. Navy, shifting about 60 percent of fleet assets to the Pacific and Indian Ocean theaters. But the rebalancing is a modest affair. More than half of the U.S. Navy is already in the theater, and the rebalancing will take place in slow motion, spanning the next eight years.

Nor will the four-vessel U.S. littoral combat ship flotilla destined for Singapore (the first one is scheduled to arrive next spring) right the balance in Southeast Asia. These are not vessels designed to do battle against the likes of the PLA Navy. But having established the principle that most of the U.S. Navy should call the Pacific and Asia home, Washington can always speed up the rebalancing process, shift more forces, and even negotiate base access in or around Southeast Asia. Beijing knows that.

Beijing may have concluded that patient diplomacy will forfeit its destiny in the South China Sea. In Chinese eyes, it's better to act now -- and preempt the competition. The lesson of 1974: Timing is everything.

STR/AFP/Getty Images