[Letters] The Arab Spring and North Korean stability

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[Letters] The Arab Spring and North Korean stability

Earlier this year, the Economist produced what it called the shoe-throwers index, which attempted to gauge the likelihood of members of the Arab League to witness a political uprising based on numerous empirical values like GDP per person and percentage of population under the age of 25. It was clear even to those at the Economist that predicting revolution and collapse is a difficult task, though they did successfully rank places like Yemen and Libya high on the list of the next possible uprisings.

Inspired by the uprisings in the Arab world, it has become fashionable to suggest that North Korea is next on the list of states to combust internally and that it is scrambling to prevent the spread of information related to the Arab Spring. The “North Korea’s imminent collapse” syndrome is nothing new. But few have considered the possibility that dissent in North Korea is insufficient to coagulate into open rebellion which, coupled with the regime’s extraordinary skill at manipulating class structure, means that North Korea is unlikely to collapse anytime soon.

Following political upheaval in Egypt, this joke spread: Hosni Mubarak meets two fellow Egyptian presidents, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, in the afterlife. Mubarak turns to Nasser and asks how he ended up there. “Poison,” Nasser says. Mubarak then turns to Sadat. “How did you end up here?” “An assassin’s bullet,” says Sadat. “What about you?” To which Mubarak replies: “Facebook.” Similarly, many have suggested that increased cellphone use and access to outside information in North Korea will lead to the undoing of the regime.

Despite increased cellphone use in North Korea and regardless of whether or not average North Koreans have significant access to information on the Arab Spring, it will probably be insufficient on its own to trigger rebellion. This is because despite reports of natural disasters and a poor harvest, failed currency reform, crackdowns on a variety of “social ills” like watching South Korean DVDs, thousands toiling in labour camps and widespread starvation and repression of political freedoms, North Korea has not yet reached the tipping point.

Being impoverished and repressed on their own are not enough to inspire revolt; only when a certain portion of the population has reached a certain standard of living where they are not forced to spend their days scavenging for food will they become fully conscious of their misfortune and muster the energy to stage demonstration and rebellion. The threshold at which a sufficient number of people are fed up with the government differs in every case. Only then would Facebook play a role in facilitating political mobilization.

And from many accounts, North Korean society is acutely two-tiered. It is comprised on the one hand of the more affluent, influential minority class of the Workers’ Party of Korea and military cadres, government officials and their families, and on the other the rest of the populace, mostly residing outside of Pyongyang, eking out a miserable existence. Maintaining this tenuous balance and ensuring key individuals and groups are satisfied remains the key to the regime’s success in preventing a political uprising.

Finally, as one observer rightly pointed out recently, let’s not forget that none of the Arab states in turmoil have actually witnessed genuine political change. The leaders have been removed, but by and large the essential political foundation remains the same. In the case of North Korea, even if the regime is overthrown, barring outside intervention we are unlikely to see anything resembling a different North Korea emerge.

*Letters and commentaries for publication should be addressed “Letters to the Editor.” E-mailed letters should be sent to eopinion@joongang.co.kr.


Ben Kolisnyk, an MA in political science and a longtime resident of South Korea.
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