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Andrei Lankov

The Surprising News From North Korea's Prisons

Over the years, North Korea's gulag population has quietly dwindled. Now, Kim Jong Un can't afford to refill the prison camps.
A little more freedom, but at a cost to someone.
A little more freedom, but at a cost to someone.

North Korea is hardly known for its permissive attitude toward political dissent. For some 70 years, open political challenges to the government have been met with precision brutality. No wonder, then, that North Koreans visiting Communist China tend to bask in that country's "unbelievable freedoms virtually bordering on anarchy," as one North Korean businessman I met last year on the mainland told me.

The international community has good reason to condemn North Korea's human-rights record. And yet: While North Korea remains a brutal place, the last two decades have also been an era of slow-motion liberalization.