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NK Democratization

Whither North Korean Democratization?

Kim So Yeol  |  2011-03-03 14:55
Democratization in the Middle East has proven possible due in large part to the existence of opposition forces which have been able to oppose their governments; however, as is well known, North Korea is a society which does not even allow the seeds of opposition to be cultivated. Instead, harboring an anti-Kim Jong Il or anti-government tendency can mean death.

▲ Graffiti on a picture of Kim Jong Il, allegedly written by Freedom Youth League in November, 2004
Of course, everybody pretends to be loyal. However, internal sources report that complaints are becoming more common. Criticisms are shared behind closed doors, but this is a generator of tension in itself.

On balance, while is difficult to imagine that an anti-regime group is vibrant and active within North Korea, it is also unlikely that there is nothing at all. They do not offer compelling evidence of unrest, but there have, nevertheless, been several cases of groups spreading flyers critical of the regime within individual North Korean cities, a phenomenon which began in November, 2004, when a group calling itself “Freedom Youth League” posted a document in Hoiryeong.

▲ The notice in Danchon saying 'Thanks to Military-first politics, people are starving. Don’t just give rice to the military, start by giving it to the people'.
Later, in 2006, on the walls of a market near Dancheon Station in South Hamkyung Province, a notice was put on a wall in a busy area which said, “Thanks to Military-first politics, people are starving. Don’t just give rice to the military, start by giving it to the people.”

Of course, Hwang Jang Yop, the former Chosun Workers' Party secretary who defected in 1997, revealed the case of some students at Kim Il Sung University who were executed for anti-regime activities. There is also the “our struggle” incident, in which elite university students in Pyongyang supposedly distributed printed material criticizing the Kim Jong Il system in 1989, leading to their arrest.

More recently, in June of last year, a National Security Agency hunt was apparently launched to find those behind the writing of critical messages on 5,000 won notes, an organization calling itself “Save the Country Action Group.”

However, given the risk of extreme punishment for the individuals concerned and their families, there is no choice for these groups or individuals but to exist in extreme secrecy; a national network is impossible from the very beginning. Since it is difficult for them to communicate with the outside world, it is also practically impossible for us to know their true scale.

Kim Yoon Tae, the general secretary of NKnet, told The Daily NK, "This is not an environment where systemized, nationwide organizations can exist. We have no choice but to believe that only small-scale resistance or opposition groups and organizations are out there."

Kim Heung Kwang, the founder of NK Intellectuals Solidarity, agreed, adding, "It is a society with strict surveillance and controls. Therefore, the groups are like reunions or meetings of merchants doing business together. It is impossible to confirm the presence of any notable anti-establishment groups.”

“However,” Kim went on to claim, “the nuclei of organizations for collective action are being formed; there is particularly active movement in Pyongyang."

Of course, whether this is true and can lead to change in the North Korean system or not is very uncertain. Certainly, many analysts say that a good catalyst is needed if a fire is to start.

One such strategy focuses on creating divisions among the elite. The response of the military and those in high political office to the actions of dictators in Egypt and Libya have been key factors, both positive and negative, in those countries; the Egyptian military helped push Mubarak out, as they did not fire a single shot in 18 days of protests. In Libya, the resignation of Abdul Fattah Younis, the Interior Minister, added weight to anti-regime protests.

The third generation succession in North Korea is naturally likely to create fissures in its own elite, and could be a key opportunity to spur change. Voices of complaint are already coming from North Korean military officials, who say that Kim Jong Eun, nominally one of North Korea’s highest ranking military officials, does not know what he is doing.

Meanwhile, the private economy is expanding and this is also creating conflict; between private markets and the authorities. Conflict over stall fees in Sinuiju and the murder of a notorious former public security chief in Chongjin are among the most recent cases of North Korean citizens resisting governmental authority in this environment.

Therefore, broadcasts and propaganda activities are important, since they offer the possibility of spurring anti-regime movements to come out of both these sources of conflict.

However, on the other hand, it is too soon to call market-related protests “anti-regime”. Peter Jung, the president of Justice for North Korea commented, "Citizen resistance in the markets is in the form of complaints about real life. The outside calls it anti-establishment; however, it is not really at the level of being classified as such."

Simply, he stated, "If North Korea's vested interests and political landscape are shaken, they could possibly turn away from the current North Korean system. So, they could become a potential group for change."

Elsewhere, as organizations with structures, underground churches cannot be discounted from the analysis.

However, the scale of these groups may be being overstated. According to Jung, "This is down to several missions repeatedly counting the same cases of North Korean defectors who travelled to China during the mid 1990s and afterward and received assistance from several different churches. The claim that North Korea's underground believers number 200,000 is likely to be down to this."

In conclusion, one North Korean expert commented, "Even though the current status within North Korea is unstable, the South Korean government strategy of waiting for North Korea to change as if waiting for fruit to fall from a tree will confer disappointment on the North Korean people, who would rather change their world through war."

Instead, the expert asserted, "Continuous support should be given to private leafleting organizations and broadcasters targeting North Korea, to cultivate the people’s desire to change their system. This is a time when innovative measures should proceed, targeting North Korean elite groups. It is critical to view North Korea from this perspective, to encourage active change in North Korea, rather than seeing it from the perspective of security and inter-Korean relations."
 
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