Readers' view: North Korean visit shows the value of freedomSince the Korean War, North Korea has evolved into one of the world’s most-closed societies with extremely tight controls imposed on personal movement, speech and information from the outside. Just as many North Koreans today hunger for food, they also hunger for information from and about the outside world.
Since the Korean War, North Korea has evolved into one of the world’s most-closed societies with extremely tight controls imposed on personal movement, speech and information from the outside. Just as many North Koreans today hunger for food, they also hunger for information from and about the outside world.
The new leader, Kim Jong-un, who just turned 30, gave the North Korean people a few cosmetic changes and even short glimpses into the world beyond his country’s borders. But he also doubled down on his reliance on coercion, rather than persuasion, to undergird his power.
A handful of speeches and statements about the need for high-tech progress and foreign consciousness have been translated not into a more open society but into rocket launches propelling Kim Jong-un into the global spotlight and secured his hand over North Korea’s huge military.
How could a visit to this country by Google Inc.’s executive chairman, a global symbol for connectivity and knowledge and an advocate for transparent governance, be anything but fascinating? Eric Schmidt returned recently from Pyongyang. He was travelling with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on what was described as a private, humanitarian visit to North Korea with the goal of bringing back Kenneth Bae, an American citizen from the Puget Sound area who had been detained during a tourist trip for unknown reasons. Despite returning without Bae, by simply landing in Pyongyang Schmidt and Richardson delivered a powerful message to North Korea’s ruling elite of the tangible wealth that can result when information flows freely.
Is it realistic to expect an epiphany from a 30-year-old hereditary dictator dealing with Cold War-era institutions of coercion? If no one was willing to “step in the ring” we would never know.
The writer is an assistant professor of history at Pacific Lutheran University of Tacoma, Wash., and has family roots in Duluth.
The writer is an associate at the Berkeley, Calif.,-based Nautilus Institute and is coordinator of SinoNK.com.