What Keeps the Lid on North Korea?

What Keeps the Lid on North Korea?

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This has not been a kind year for dictators. First to give way to the howling winds of change was Tunisia’s Ben Ali, followed weeks later by Egypt’s seemingly well-entrenched Hosni Mubarrak. Now the world watches as Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi struggles fiercely for survival, while unrest brews in repressive Bahrain and Yemen.

But in North Korea, all seems eerily quiet.

Aspiring dictators would do well to look to the cash-strapped and resource-poor Kim regime for a guidebook on how to stay in power. If nothing else, staying in power is what the regime excels at.

Pundits and political leaders alike have for decades expected the demise of the most despicable of totalitarian governments. They said, it would come after the death in 1994 of the country’s founder and chief architect, Kim Il-sung. Again, they proclaimed the end was nigh during North Korea’s “Arduous March” in the latter half of the nineties, when anywhere from 300,000 to 3 million people starved as a result of misguided policies that aggravated the effects of severe weather conditions.

And yet despite the revolutionary tide engulfing the Arab world, an article in last week’s New York Times states that north of the DMZ separating the two Korea’s, “no signs of unrest” are to be seen. People, the article continues, “seem to be bearing up and muddling through, as they always do.”

So what accounts for the tenacity of the regime, which by most accounts, is fairly well disliked by the North Koreans themselves? A host of factors, which in almost any other country would lead to the immediate ouster of those in charge, seems to have achieved the opposite effect in North Korea.

Information is a rare commodity in the North, where alternatives to the party organs, the Nodong Sinmun (Workers’ Daily) and the Korean Central Broadcasting System (KCBS), are almost nonexistent. In a country of 23 million, no more than 5 percent have access to a computer, and no more than several thousand have access to the Internet. There’s of course the Kwangmyong (brightness) intranet, which offers email capabilities and exclusive access to the thousands of ideological tracts allegedly penned by the country’s Dear Leader and his father, the Great Leader.

Only an estimated five per one hundred people had telephones, according the most recent figures available in 1997. The number may have risen somewhat since then, as those with business interests or relatives in China or South Korea have come into possession of cell phones that must be kept hidden, through bribes or other means, from local cadres.

With little means of communication, most North Koreans remain woefully ignorant of global events and, more significantly, of events within their own nation. This includes the perennial food shortages, said to be nearing levels not seen since the famines of two decades ago.

Another inhibitor of social unrest is the country’s penal codes. An op-ed in the Korean-language Korea Daily, by a North Korean defector living in the South, noted that those found guilty of crimes against the state could find themselves and up to three generations of their relatives shipped off to one of any number of gulags the state maintains. Crimes include grumbling about conditions or damaging, intentionally or unintentionally, a printed image of Kim Jong-il or his father.

The ubiquity of government informants, which analysts say number one per every ten or twenty people, exacerbates the repressive chill. Pervasive paranoia prevents parents from speaking openly even in front of their own children. Fear of being reported and winding up in a prison camp, where starvation and death are common, stifles the emergence of organized resistance to Kim’s misrule.

Defectors have cited instances where in gatherings of three or more one party will often be motivated to report disloyalty to officials before they themselves are reported. This raises an interesting point of comparison with events in the Middle East.

Most of the protests across the Muslim world have taken place on Friday, suggesting the role that Islam has played in fostering a sense of community beyond the state. No such cohering force exists in North Korea, where the atomization of society prevents the kind of solidarity seen in countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

As noted Korea scholar Andrei Lankov writes in a recent piece for the Asia Times online, “Even if news about Arab revolutions become known to North Koreans, they are unlikely to see this as relevant to their existence [for] they have no means to emulate it, they are too terrified and disunited to do so.”

Rampant mistrust of fellow citizens, fueled by fear and innate survival instincts, redounds to Kim’s favor. Autocrats from Tunis to Tahrir are being swept aside by the seeds of their own undoing. In North Korea it may very well take another generation.