When he inherited power in North Korea 10 years ago, Swiss-trained basketball fan Kim Jong Un seemed open to foreign ideas and market reforms, but he increasingly refuses them. outside influences as he enters his second decade in power.
North Korea has long been one of the most isolated countries in the world, with authorities seeking to maintain strict control over what information comes in and goes out.
Those restrictions appeared to be easing under Kim, who allowed the market to play a bigger role in North Korea’s declining economy, and invited an entourage of K-pop artists to perform in Pyongyang in 2018. .
But the country’s situation is deteriorating due to a self-imposed coronavirus blockade, a far more comprehensive measure than any of the international sanctions it is subject to for its nuclear program.
Strict rules have been put back in place as Kim seeks to strengthen internal solidarity and her grip on society in times of difficulty, analysts say.
“The growing censorship suggests the regime is less confident,” said Troy Stangarone, senior director of the Korea Economic Institute.
Kim, who spent most of his childhood in Switzerland, had once appeared to be more flexible towards outdoor cultivation.
In 2012, he was shown on state television greeting a group of girls in miniskirts playing the theme song from the American movie “Rocky,” on a stage shared by a handful of Disney characters.
At the same time, he turned a blind eye to the country’s widespread black market, the “jangmadang”.
The growing role of market forces in the economy, although officially still maligned, allowed it to record its fastest growth in 17 years in 2016, according to the Bank of Korea, the South’s central bank.
But key sectors of the economy were sanctioned by the UN Security Council the following year as North Korea tested missiles that could reach the entire Americas and carried out its most powerful nuclear test in this day.
Analysts say Kim’s confidence weakened after his successful diplomacy with then-US President Donald Trump stalled in 2019 without sanctions relief.
The pandemic and the resulting border closures saw the North register its largest economic contraction in more than two decades in 2020, according to the Bank of Korea, and earlier this year Kim warned the country was facing his “worst situation”.
Kim embraced the return to a centralized economy, with the regime formally regaining control of all foreign trade and domestic markets at a five-year party convention in January.
And Pyongyang has enacted a law punishing those who own South Korean content with 15 years in prison, according to reports, Northern state media quoting Kim urging officials to eliminate “vicious cancer that threatens our ideology and our system. social and hinders unity of mind ”.
Stangarone told AFP: “In times of difficulty, the regime must tighten control to reassert its authority.”
North Korea has long suppressed what it calls “the ideological and cultural invasion.”
All radios and televisions are preset to receive only state media, while the government prevents ordinary North Koreans from accessing the global Internet.
But analysts say such censorship will struggle because foreign material is already prevalent in North Korea, especially among the younger generation, distributed on USB drives.
In a study by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, nearly half of 116 respondents who fled North Korea in 2018 and 2019 said they “frequently” watched southern entertainment. in the north.
Cho Han-bum, senior researcher at the Korea National Unification Institute, said the so-called “Jangmadang generation,” those born and raised during and after the famine in the 1990s, are likely to resist repression.
With the state unable to provide rations as children, they grew up fending for themselves, relying on the market to survive and with far less allegiance to rulers, Cho said.
“A clash between Kim’s conservative approach and northern millennials and Generation Z, who love South Korean dramas and BTS music, will be inevitable,” he added.