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Is North Korea Finally Opening Up? Hardly

EVENTS in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) over the past five months have led some observers to wonder if that closed and secretive country might be opening up.

Requests to the international community for food aid, continued initiatives for foreign investment in the Tumen River area, and halting steps toward fulfillment of the US-DPRK 1994 Nuclear Agreed Framework have raised the prospect that chinks may finally be forming in North Korea's autarkic armor. Reports of internal conditions in North Korea indicate otherwise, however: While the country's foreign relations might suggest steps toward openness, human rights conditions within North Korea clearly show the true nature of this last Stalinist holdover.

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Pyongyang is playing games with the international community. Most probably these steps toward "openness" reflect North Korean diplomatic efforts to rectify their steadily worsening domestic situation without allowing foreign access to their population - a crucial step if North Korean officials have any hope of prolonging the survival of their country.

There are increasing reports, especially from Seoul, that famine levels reported by North Korea and the United Nations are overstated: Food shortages are evidently a yearly occurrence in the northern regions of the country. Additionally, it appears to make little difference to North Korean officials whether or not the common citizen has food - as long as the military, the cornerstone of the leadership's power, is kept well fed. All informed estimates conclude that the military gets all it needs.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of North Korea's unwillingness to open up to the outside world is its consistent refusal to clarify and rectify its miserable human rights record. An Amnesty International official recently stated that, while it is nearly impossible to verify abuses independently, North Korea is among the worst offenders of human rights in the world.

The information that does filter out of the DPRK is troubling at best. North Korea has a system of repression that harkens back to the dark days of Joseph Stalin. North Korean citizens disappear into political "reeducation" centers, never to be heard from again. North Korean officials, when pressed by Amnesty International on this subject, vacillate on whether these punishment camps even exist. When they do admit to them, the prisoners in question "have never been detained." Entire families have been killed in one fell swoop. Amnesty International was told by North Korean officials that two prisoners of conscience had died - "one was killed during an escape attempt, together with his wife and children, the other died in a train accident, also with his whole family." Other former detainees have, according to North Korean officials, moved abroad - a strange phenomenon for a country that rarely allows its citizens across its borders. In several reported incidents, North Koreans have escaped into China or Russia, to be forcibly returned by the North Korean Public Security Service, whose agents cross borders to retrieve defectors. From top-secret satellite images come intelligence reports of firing-squad executions where thousands are ordered to attend as spectators.

The list of human rights violations in North Korea is probably far longer than the abuses uncovered so far. Conditions in North Korea for the average citizen are abysmal and are a bellwether for the status of the entire North Korean political system. Human rights conditions show no sign of imminent improvement; as such, reports of North Korea "opening up to the world" are undoubtedly false - all part of Pyongyang's diplomatic machinations to maintain its closed society.

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