Those who have managed to lead successful revolutions in recent times have been overwhelmingly intellectuals critical of their system. Interestingly, communism is no exception to this pattern. Communist parties describe themselves as the non-propertied classes, despite the fact that almost all senior communist leaders are from privileged backgrounds. Vladimir Lenin was the son of a senior public servant and Leon Trotsky’s father was for a time the wealthiest Jewish landowner in imperialist Russia. The trend of intellectuals being the major opposition to autocratic regimes was even present in the anti-communist democracy movement. Intellectuals played a decisive role in the 1989-90 anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe. They sensed an internal crisis taking place within the Soviet Union and grabbed the opportunity to spread a democratic movement which eventually replaced the pro-Soviet, anti-democratic, anti-nationalist systems that had been in place since the 1960s.
Ironically, it was only the relative freedom afforded by the post-Stalin era which allowed these people to play the role they did. For over 20 years, intellectuals had been able to meet in private with friends to verbally savage the regime and dream of alternatives. This served to harden their anti-establishment, pro-democracy mindset.
If we look at the present-day situation in North Korea, the conditions for a people’s revolution that I refer to above appear to be some way off. Naturally, times are better than they were during the ‘March of Tribulation’. Food is still scarce, but not to the point of starvation anymore. Paradoxically, a partial upswing in the economy is always going to be more likely to weaken the foundations of the Kim Il Jong regime than strengthen it. This has to be the case when people have more opportunity than they did before to consider social and political problems rather than spending every waking moment wondering how to survive the day. Despite that, the current circumstances do not suggest a revolution is going to occur any time soon.
First of all, North Korean citizens are relatively unaware that an alternative exists. Admittedly, we’ve all heard and read about the ‘Korean Wave’ making its way into North Korea, and the continual inflow and increase of knowledge about South Korea. However, this trend seems to be limited to border areas and large cities, and even then, mainly to the younger generations which reside within those areas.
North Koreans are generally aware of the fact that people in South Korea live better lives, but what they do not know is just how big the disparity is. Perhaps more importantly, they do not know what the mechanisms were which led to the affluence South Korea enjoys today. There is no doubt that increased knowledge of South Korea and other foreign countries would eventually destroy the foundations of the North Korean regime.
However, I believe that it would take a long time, possibly ten to twenty years, for such a process to have a political effect.
Secondly, even though there are people within North Korea who bear contempt for the system, those people have been well schooled since their formative years not to air such grievances. People do not even dare to imagine publicly airing their gripes with the government, and their fear is not without good reason. Over the last ten years the North Korean regime’s suppression of its own people has eased somewhat, but it is still, as it has been for some time now, the most brutal dictatorship in the world.
According to people who come and go from North Korea frequently or have lived there for a long enough period of time, public fear has decreased significantly in recent times. The public does not fear interaction with foreigners as much as they did before, and they feel less nervous about such contact too. But for this change to take hold in the psyche of all North Koreans will take a long time.
Thirdly, the North Korean state forbids or severely limits the autonomous social activities of citizens. Unlike the communist states of the former Soviet Union and market-economy autocracies, North Korea does not permit autonomous operation for any group, be it even a student club or cultural organization.
The same people who have denied such freedom have also strived to control the formation and growth of lateral relationships and networking amongst the people. It is true that recent times have seen the development of lateral relationships, thanks to the marketization of the country which has taken place mainly through the outdoor market. Nevertheless, there is still no social network which may provide the groundwork for any sort of civilian uprising in North Korea.
Furthermore, it is completely out of the question for intellectuals or their organizations to even privately criticize the system, or discuss an alternative one. The National Security Agency absolutely forbids any such activity, and this prevents any revolutionary thought or outlook embedding itself in the minds of the citizenry.
Of course, the above analysis is not without certain problems. History has proven that dictatorships which appear stable can be shaken and collapse at a moment’s notice. Knowing that, it would be unreasonable for me to completely discount the possibility of such a sudden change taking place in North Korea as well, but at the very least it appears extremely unlikely.
Consider for a moment the social evolution which has taken place in North Korea since the Kim Il Sung era, and it is possible to see many elements which are long-term threats to the North Korean regime. The influx of information from overseas brought about by the partial marketization of the country; the flagging of state supervision directly related to corruption; the strengthening of horizontal relationships in the jangmadang; the popularization of computers and mobile phones; all of these things would quietly shake the basis of any regime, even one in an isolated country in which people are monitored every moment of the day. These changes, however, take time to have political results.
Those who predict that the third-generation succession will incite instability insist that not only a civilian uprising but also some kind of division within the ruling classes can threaten the regime. As far as I can see, this prospect is also unlikely, but that is for my next column.