Kim Jong Un has imposed extraordinary social controls across North Korea—and especially in the capital of Pyongyang—in the run-up to the Workers’ Party 7th Congress, which starts Friday. The once-in-a-generation event—the last was held in 1980—is supposed to celebrate Kim’s rule, but in recent months observers have been seeing signs of a breakdown of order and a descent back into destitution.
Kim mobilized all North Koreans to prepare for the event. The Congress, for instance, caps a “70-day struggle,” a period when workers were forced to labor around the clock, often on projects conceived to commemorate the party gathering. Unfortunate citizens temporarily disappeared, especially from open-air markets, as security officials press-ganged them, according to Seoul’s Chosen Ilbo newspaper.
Nonetheless, people were willingly coming forward to lend a hand. Rodong Sinmun, the party’s authoritative newspaper, at the beginning of last month reported that a couple “volunteered” to work on their wedding day. These industrious newlyweds should count themselves lucky. Weddings since then have been banned, as have funerals.
The campaign, predictably, turned deadly as officials are said to have demanded the completion of projects with next-to-impossible deadlines. A source told Chosun that 30 soldiers were killed when a tunnel collapsed during the building of a canal for a generating station near the sacred Mt. Paektu, on the China border. About a dozen villagers in Ryanggang province died in a landslide while working on a railroad project.
Furthermore, the people’s regime reached deep into people’s pockets. At a time when the average North Korean household earns about 4,000 won a month (or about $4.50), Kim’s officials were ordering every family to contribute between 6,500 to 26,000 won as a “loyalty payment” for the Congress.
At the same time, security officials locked down the entire population. The authorities essentially stopped issuing domestic travel permits and blocked the movement of people in and out of Pyongyang, ordering everyone visiting the capital to leave. The Ministry of People’s Security reportedly began working with the inminban, local watch patrols, to inspect citizens in their homes as well as travelers in hotels and motels.
Around the country, workers have been taken from their factory jobs and made to patrol historic sites—sometimes defaced in the past by protesters—along with the neighborhood watch.
No detail has been too minor for scrutiny. In the run-up to the Congress, security officials reworked the songbun—social classification—status of every citizen to update assessments of family ties and “ideological leanings.” As a source told the DailyNK site, “Everyone is being newly re-categorized and closely managed according to their ancestry and songbun and placed into one of the three categories: the core class, who in times of emergency would be expected to support Kim Jong Un; the wavering class, who must always be scrutinized; and the hostile class, who must be placed under continuous surveillance.”
State Security Department and Ministry of People’s Security personnel have been brought to Pyongyang for “defending the Party Congress.” It appears that army units have also been moved to the capital.
“The real source of power in our country isn’t nuclear weapons or any other military means, but the single-minded unity of the people and the leader,” said North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Su Yong, last week. “This power of unity we have is the real source of power that leads our country into victory.”
Of course, if there were such unity, there would be no need for draconian controls.
Kim Jong Un for the moment can stay in power, but only through coercion. “The make-work mobilizations, confiscations, and restrictions aren’t just about money; they’re also about control,” Joshua Stanton of One Free Korea told The Daily Beast. The regime is losing its grip. There are, for example, scattered protests, and, in a stunning breakdown of law and order, the North saw its first bank robbery ever on April 4. As Stanton notes, “This regime knows that if it can’t keep its subjects happy, the next-best way to control them is to keep them too tired, busy, poor, and weak from hunger to resist.”
That strategy has worked for Kim and his father, Kim Jong Il—but society is starting to get restless. Now, there appears to be little love for the ruling family and, in the eyes of many North Koreans, the current Kim ruler has no legitimacy by virtue of his bloodline.
Instead of devotion to the Kim family, there is now a “money culture.” After the great famine of the late 1990s, which may have killed as many as 3.5 million people, many North Koreans have learned to live without the support of the state.
So Kim Jong Un has to prove to his people that he should be allowed to continue to rule. He has promoted what he calls the byungjin line, or progress in tandem of developing both fearsome instruments of war and the economy.
The policy looks good on paper, but Kim, in the words of the Chosun Ilbo, “has failed to improve the livelihoods of North Koreans and seems to rely increasingly on hasty weapons demonstrations to make a splash.” As Rodong Sinmun noted in late March, “We may have to go on an arduous march, during which we will have to chew the roots of plants once again.” So food is once again scarce, and not just for humans. Tellingly, scientists are noticing that migrating vultures eat before crossing into North Korea.
Kim’s problem is that his economy, after several years of averaging 1 percent growth, looks like it is contracting again. New United Nations sanctions, imposed in early March after the Jan. 6 nuclear test, seem to be having an effect, causing shortages of most everything across the country.
And that is why there is now renewed concern about political stability. “If seen against the background of recent purges, executions, and senior defections, they indicate that the Kim Jong Un regime is still fundamentally insecure,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “A dramatic turn of events may appear more likely than ever.”
Or as former U.S. diplomat Wendy Sherman said this week to an audience in Washington, D.C., “Unexpected changes—including sudden regime collapse or a coup—cannot be ruled out.”
The test for Kim Jong Un is not whether he can stage a grand show of unity at the Party Congress but whether, in the following months, he can convince hungry North Koreans to give him more time.