North Korea as 'Oz': Pay no attention to the nation behind the curtain

In the run-up to its 'rocket' launch, North Korea put on a show for the global media. But amid the fanfare it's clear that isolation serves Pyongyang better than close world scrutiny. 'We don't really care about opinion from the outside,' said one official, bluntly.

David Guttenfelder/AP
North Korean technicians man computer terminals at North Korea's space agency's General Launch Command Center on the outskirts of Pyongyang on April 11.

Bombast and Oz-style image-building have prevailed this week in North Korea, where the regime has thrown a press party to discomfit the world in the run-up to its planned launch of a long-range ballistic missile. But amid all the hype it showered on the global media came what may actually be one honest and unvarnished statement about the hermit-nation’s intentions.

“We don’t really care about the opinion from the outside,” said Paek Chang-ho, chief of North Korea’s satellite control center, as he reviewed with foreign journalists Wednesday what he said was the fuel-injection stage of missile launch preparations. “This is critical in order to develop our national economy.”

Huh? Could it be that North Korea, despite its decades of antics aimed at impressing the world, really revels in the glorious isolation that has allowed its repressive system to survive?

Conventional wisdom would have it that Pyongyang, which has a record of acting out to get the world’s attention, is having one of its don’t-you-dare-ignore-me tantrums. The planned missile launch – a violation of UN Security Council resolutions barring the North from such potentially destabilizing actions – just happens to be scheduled for sometime over a period of days (Pyongyang says the launch will occur between April 12 and April 15) when the world will be focused on international talks with Iran over its nuclear program.

There may be some truth to that. It’s also true that the missile, which North Korean authorities insist will carry a communications satellite into space, stands like a giant birthday candle to mark the centenary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, deceased grandfather of the baby-faced new leader, Kim Jong-un.

But Mr. Paek, the satellite chief, may have unwittingly let the cat out of the bag with his off-handed dismissal of the outside world. It is in fact North Korea’s isolation that has allowed its repressive system of a small privileged elite ruling over a starved and traumatized majority to survive.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged as much in a speech this week when she said the North’s planned satellite launch “will give credence to the view that North Korean leaders see improved relations with the outside world as a threat to their system.”

Pyongyang got another reminder of why isolation serves its purposes more than world engagement when a Washington-based group, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, issued a report April 10 calling for the dismantling of a vast “gulag” of camps in the North holding as many as 200,000 political prisoners.

Noting the report, the US special envoy on human rights in North Korea, Robert King, declared that respect for human rights is a prerequisite “for the North to participate fully in the international community.”

North Korea’s awaited missile will rise like a rebuttal to the likes of Mr. King, trailing an imaginary banner declaring, “No thanks, turns out isolation is good for our longevity.”

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