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[Editorial] Whither North Korea?

Latest developments there raise concern

It is not rare to receive negative news from North Korea, be it about its reclusive, totalitarian leader and his loyal lieutenants, grave violations of human rights or an economy in tatters. Yet, the latest developments in the country raise some concerns.

First, the Kremlin’s announcement that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will not attend a ceremony in Moscow next month marking the 70th anniversary of Russia’s victory over Germany in World War II disappointed many who had thought Kim’s visit to the Russian capital could herald a change in his policy and attitude toward the outside world.

The spokesperson for the Russian presidential office did not give specific reasons for Kim’s last-minute cancellation of the plan to attend the Russian victory parade, only saying that the decision was related to the “internal situation of North Korea.”

Whatever the reasons may be, Kim gave up on a chance to make his “debut on the international diplomatic stage,” which certainly would have helped him and his country move out of the ever-deepening international isolation.

Kim, who took power in 2011 when his father, Kim Jong-il, died suddenly, has neither traveled abroad nor received any foreign leader. Moreover, on top of chilly ties with South Korea and the United States, North Korea’s relations with China ― its sole remaining ally ― has deteriorated in recent years over Pyongyang’s insistence on its nuclear weapons program.

As his grandfather and father did, a dictator cut off from the international community tends to be preoccupied with domestic rule and resorts to a reign of terror.

The South Korean spy agency said that this year alone, 15 senior officials and four members of an orchestra which often entertains the Kim family and the ruling elite were executed.

They were all executed in public, a usual tactic of the Kim regime to strengthen its grip on the government and the public by spreading the terror of death. The number of such public executions stood at 17 in 2012, 10 in 2013 and 41 in 2014, according to the agency.

A South Korean lawmaker who relayed the intelligence officers’ report said there is a possibility that the head of the Unhasu (Galaxy) Orchestra and three other members were executed because they leaked some secrets about Kim’s family.

Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, was a singer for the orchestra and in 2013, Japanese media reported that some of its members were executed for making pornography and that the execution was designed to cover up Ri’s alleged involvement in the scandal. This certainly is a weird story.

Weirdness and irrationality are the norm of North Korean diplomats as well. Last week, North Korean diplomats at the United Nations disrupted a forum on the North’s human rights in the most undiplomatic way.

One of the three diplomats read aloud a statement from the audience, without authorization from the moderator, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, who ordered the microphone turned off. They faced fierce protests from participants, including those who escaped from the North, before leaving the conference room.

The Seoul government is offering one olive branch after another to the North in line with President Park Geun-hye’s drive for improving inter-Korean relations.

It authorized shipment of fertilizer aid by a civilian group ― for the first time in five years ― and proposed cultural and sports exchange programs to celebrate the 70th anniversary of liberation from Japan’s colonial rule.

All these initiatives sound hollow, however, considering what’s happening in the North and what its leader and his followers have been doing. We raise this concern because any real improvement of relations with the North would not be possible unless it becomes a normal country and at least an average member of the international community.