Op-Ed Commentary: Teja Yenamandra
Feb. 24 – Recent weeks have seen a wave of desire for more accountable, more helpful or simply better governance begin to surface. Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt resulted in regime change. Protests in Bahrain and Libya, despite the escalation of violence by government security forces, rage on. Even in tightly-controlled China, a grass-roots movement calling for more assistance for the disaffected parts of society were organized by local leaders. In the long-term, it remains unclear how geopolitics will be shaped by recent happenstance. In the short-term, domestic politics for authoritarian nations are becoming a little bit more uncertain, and in the process, a little bit more interesting.
And North Korea is a perfect example of this trend.
Though Dear Leader Kim Jong-il is in the process of grooming his successor, he currently rules North Korea with little toleration for any form of challenge to his authority. Dissent is out of the question, and all except the military and the upper echelons of the Workers Party—the two organs necessary to control the rest of the country—struggle for access to even the most basic of amenities.
And yet, yesterday, the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo was quoted as saying that there were a few minor protests on the opposite side of the northern border. People in several cities apparently gathered across North Korea with makeshift megaphones demanding rice and electricity.
The likelihood of such protests for basic necessities evolving into a more ideal-driven movement for institutional change seems difficult to discern.
South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said on Wednesday the North Korean regime “is probably trying to keep the Middle Eastern protests from affecting it. Internet access is strictly controlled in North Korea, and there is no North Korean media coverage, so I believe ordinary citizens are unaware” of other revolutions. “I think the impact will be negligible for the time being.”
Jang Jin-song, a North Korean defector and poet, told the National Human Rights Commission there is no free exchange of information in North Korea. The country, moreover, has the largest number of military personnel per person in the world, and the chances of them aiding the protestors as they had in Tunisia and Egypt, rather than destroying them, as in Libya, are dubious. In a very visceral sense, the regime puts food on the table for North Korean soldiers.
Without being too dismissive of the power of the North Korean people, since the Korean War’s end in 1953, talking heads have unsuccessfully “predicted” the North’s demise.
On the other hand, even two months ago, few would have predicted what happened in Tunisia and Egypt over the past few weeks.
Of Kim’s three sons, only two were considered eligible to lead. The older, Kim Jong-nam fell out of favor when he was caught entering into Japan (to visit Tokyo’s Disneyland) with a fake passport, leaving Kim Jong-un to be the heir presumptive, a person whom people know little about.
Information inflow to North Korea is tightly-controlled, but there are leaks, ranging from the airing of balloons with anti-Kim messages written on them by opponents of the regime, to North Koreans successfully making it across the country’s border with China. Some even manage to receive foreign TV and radio broadcasts.
The success of a protest turning into a successful revolution hinges on the level of brutality at which the state’s military is willing to operate. Although the regime does feed its forces, not all troops are fed equally well, according to intelligence reports. The possibility of lower-ranking troops supporting protesters is not completely dismissible.
Predicting the future should be left to those with doctorates. What’s clear, however, is that for North Korea and a few other regimes, the future should certainly be interesting.