The start of the new year is a time for turning over a new leaf and reinventing your image.
In terms of “out with the old”, you can’t get much more pronounced than North Korea, who have got themselves a new leader and, it might seem, a new era of freedom.
Far from imposing his authority by clamping down and locking up any dissenters, the young leader Kim Jong Un, has decided to mark the start of his rule by announcing a mass release of prisoners. North Korean state television announced today that a round of special pardons will be issued to convicts to commemorate the birthdays of Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather. Kim Jong Il's 70th birthday would have been this February and the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, will follow in April.
It’s good news. Every amnesty is good news. Yet as welcome as this announcement is, there is obviously an agenda here, and that is to boost the popularity of the new leader. The people of North Korea could certainly do with a sweetener, as the economy struggles, they remain locked in an international stalemate over their nuclear programme and chronic food shortages persist. Yet it is important to moderate our celebrations until it is clear what sort of a path Kim Jong Un is choosing.
There are certainly lots of prisoners that he could select for release and as yet no indication as to who, or indeed how many people will be freed in the amnesty. Some of the releases might possibly be from the prison camps we reported on last May. Kim Jong Un’s father’s administration always denied the existence of these industrial-scale prison camps, but using satellite imagery, we were able to show their existence and their scale. Amnesty believes around 200,000 people are being held in prison camps in North Korea, in hellish conditions. They are used as slave labour, executions take place without trial and as many as 2/5 inmates die of malnutrition. The concept of “guilt by association” means that many of the people there are being held captive simply because one of their family members has been accused of a crime.
It is too early to pass a judgment on the new ruler, and the sort of leader he will prove, but if this is to be a watershed moment then let’s hope Kim Jong Un starts with a full-blown closure of all of the six prison camps identified in our satellite photographs and an overhaul of the justice system. Until then, pictured holding hands with senior-ranking military figures, he has more than a passing resemblance to his father, and in a country where guilt by association is rife, that is no good thing.
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