Yearning for a North Korean Spring?

December 19, 2011 12:46 PM

With the death of Kim Jong-il comes a sliver of hope. Will the family franchise of famine and daredevil nuclear gamesmanship continue? Or, for the sake of its people, is there any chance of real change in North Korea?

In other words, does this emotional period of public mourning offer enough of an opening for a "North Korean Spring"? You can hope, but don't count on it.

That the odds are against it shows just how terribly good a despot Kim Jong-il has been in his anti-democratic ways. His rule was all but complete, with few experiencing or knowing any other way but the North Korean way. That's more important than you think.

You're a member of the masses in North Korea, the hardcore 99 percent. The middle class has had the means and the luck to escape.  The rest are just stuck. All you know is hardship and famine. It's like being in a cult. You don't know any better. It's your "normal." While you're just happy to have a meal, Dear Leader can have such luxuries as a personal library of 20,000 foreign films at the ready. You don't know that anyone with a Netflix account can have that. Then again, you don't even have the means to Tweet how hungry you are. How are you supposed to start a revolution?

Indeed, the only way Kim has been able to keep his people under a rock has been to keep them under a rock, completely shrouded from modern life. Running water used to be the sign of advanced societies. But in the information age, it's all about the flow of instant personal information. In the modern age, the best barometer for that is the ubiquitous mobile phone. Make that almost ubiquitous. In North Korea only 400,000 people in North Korea reportedly have mobile phones. That's less than two percent of a population of 24 million. That should give you an idea of how North Korea works. If you're an elite member of the regime, you get to experience modern life, not quite like Dear Late and Lamented Leader, but certainly more so than the North Korean 99 percent.

And as cell phones go, so go all the other gizmos that make the world "not the 1940s."  Getting an iPad for Christmas? Probably not in North Korea. Kim has his people so dammed up in an unnatural world where the internet is rare, and all the tools that promulgated the Arab Spring are out of some democratic fantasy. Leaks on how the rest of the world lives are kept to the minimum. Helps keep envy down.

In North Korea, modern life remains classified.

It's not third world, it's three and a half. 

Still, the country is a major player in the modern world just the same. If only its people could eat nuclear weapons.

Last month, Fareed Zakaria, Time/CNN journalist and AALDEF's Lunar New Year honoree next February 8th, noted how 200 North Koreans were stranded in Libya. They were doctors and nurses trained in North Korea sent to help the Gadhafi regime. And there were more in places like Tunisia and Egypt. But North Korea didn't want them back. The government would rather they not return to let others in on the big little secret: there's another life possible outside of Kim Jong-il's fantasy world.

Fear may be the only way to keep the cult afloat. The iron hand will likely become stronger. But whose will it be? Kim's successor son, Kim Jong-un?  Will other regime members buttress up the young heir?

Or is this the opening for more talk of unification?  Earlier this month, South Korea resumed sending shipments of nearly $6 million in medical aid to North Korea via UNICEF.

Beyond medicine and vaccines, UNICEF has estimated this year that there's more than $20 million in food aid needed for North Korea in order to prevent "a full scale nutritional crisis, especially among children."

That crisis is the lasting legacy of the despot. There's really no reason for it to continue. With his death, there may be some in the country of 24 million, rebels at heart, who dare to be the heroes of a North Korean spring.


Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.


1. I hope North Korea, if it opens up the country to technology, eases into it instead of the way other 3rd world nations got blasted with cellphones, EMF radiation, and Twitter. As rudimentary as North Korea is, the country has an excellent opportunity to develop properly. Jaron Lanier, who coined the term "virtual reality", writes in his book "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto" that the internet has become a ghetto, occupied by mobs and hive mind who demean and depersonalize people. North Koreans have not been exposed to this technocratic debauchery. In the west, technology is on a runaway course. We do not need to be constantly "connected" issuing statements on our daily trivialities. Some people are denouncing this way of thought who consider corporate technology detrimental to physical and emotional health. North Korea probably doesn't have farm factories, where hoards of animals are confined to small cages in which females are injected with hormones to increase yield in an exploitative and unnatural manner for the sake of profits, as detailed in a compilation book by Lisa Kemmerer entitled "Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice." North Korea needs to eat, but not like the way the west does. In that respect, North Korea was correct to keep profit makers at bay who create an enormous amount of chemcially-induced meat and dairy products. It will be interesting how or if North Korea rebounds from the 1940s lifestyle. People need to know that an iPad and iPhone existence, consuming processed foods, creating pollution, having a monetary-based medical institution, etc., isn't as monumental as the corporations hype it up to be. There is growing resistance to technological attitudes and its profiteering incentives. Perhaps as the west slows down and North Korea modernizes, there will be a harmonious middle ground, where we are people, not gadgets, and can exist civilly and conscientiously.
Posted by: sfmuckraker | Dec 19, 2011 5:05 PM

2. North Korea is among the last of the Communist countries that have yet to evolve away from Totalitarian Communism. It has yet to realize that Communism does NOT bring a Workers Paradise. But change is coming. About 100 years ago, Communism was implemented in Russia and then for the next 50 years, countries all over the world embarked on this Grand Experiment to see if Communism could bring a Workers Paradise, a society where production was maximized because the Workers were working for the Common Good, and the production was divided in an egalitarian manner. Half the world joined the experiment, including North Korea. But by the mid 1980s, Eastern Europe realized that Grand Experiment was showing that Communism was a failed idea. It sounded good (better than that dog-eat-dog, Invisible Hand dividing production of Free Market society), but it just didn't work. Today, only North Korea and Cuba remain as the last hold outs of pure Marxist Communism; their leadership is still unconvinced that Communism just doesn't work -- or they are just holding on for dear life, since they don't know how to begin switching over, like Communist China. The best way to encourage North Korea to discard totalitarian Communism is NOT by force and threats (that only makes them dig in deeper). The best way is to encourage trade and contact with Free Market economies, so their standard of living will improve. No leader wants to govern over impoverished people; they would rather bask in the glory of the grateful appreciation of a people whose standard of living is improving quickly. Hegel said history evolves; successful revolutions only occur if the time is ripe. And if the time is ripe, you don't need a violent revolution to effect change; it will come naturally. Just as Communism fell in Eastern Europe; quietly and naturally. Let's stop spending so many resources threatening, containing, and otherwise giving North Korea reason to hunker down. Let's encourage free trade; let's offer encouragement to the New Leaders of North Korea to open up. North Korea and the whole world will benefit by reduced tensions and less resources wasted on dealing with a combative--but starving--North Korea.
Posted by: stevchipmunk | Dec 22, 2011 6:49 PM

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