On December 19, 2011, Kim Jong-Il, the former “dear leader” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (a.k.a. North Korea), known for his infamous songun or “military first” policies, died of a heart attack.
Shortly following his passing, his son, Kim Jong-un, was declared the country’s next leader. At the time, the international community knew very little of Kim Jong-un due to North Korea’s traditionally secretive and isolationist tendencies, and speculated about implications for the historic tensions between North and South Korea and South Korea’s long-time ally, the U.S.
In recent months, the young Kim has proved more than willing to not only live up to his father’s militaristic expectations, but to exceed them entirely. In October 2012, North Korea claimed to have ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, and just recently, North Korea successfully conducted it’s third nuclear test. While the truth to the former event remains unclear, North Korea’s confirmation of the third nuclear test indicates direct defiance towards the international community to the dismay of North Korea’s long-time communist ally, China. Lastly, a report by Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and DigitalGlobe indicated that North Korea has continued the expansion of political prison camps under Kim Jong-un.
Implications for the U.S. are increasingly apparent. North Korea has long expressed hostility towards the U.S., declaring South Korea a mere American puppet; however, we must ask ourselves, what does the increasingly militant regime and the expansion of political prison camps mean for the more than 24 million people living in North Korea? For one, with the recent nuclear test, there is no doubt that a significant amount of money is being pumped into North Korea’s nuclear and military programs. While North Korean scientists are spending a ridiculous amount of money perfecting the nuclear bomb, North Korean children are suffering from malnutrition. The existence and continued expansion of the aforementioned political prison camps highlights the human rights abuses committed by the North Korean government. Those fortunate to have escaped from North Korean the camps, compare the brutality of these prisons to the Soviet Union’s gulag during the Cold War and the Holocaust’s concentration camps. The camps are undoubtedly being expanded to accommodate a crackdown on defections.
Many news outlets and other media have suggested that, despite the aforementioned military aggression, North Korea is emerging from isolation and extending a relatively friendly hand. This commentary is the result of news that basketball star Dennis Rodman and several of the Harlem Globetrotters arrived in North Korea on Tuesday, February 26, 2013, to practice what has been deemed "basketball diplomacy." Rodman and the globetrotters are following in the footsteps of former Governor Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) and Google executive Eric Schmidt, who visited the country last month.
Despite North Korea’s willingness to entertain a few prominent Americans, the government expresses a continuous defiance towards the international community that no amount of basketball and meet-and-greats can alleviate. Furthermore, the country’s constant dissent towards the U.S. and its neighbor to the South is only one angle to the government’s hostility. The regimes under Kim Jong-Il and now Kim Jong-un continue to violate basic human rights within its own borders.