Glasnost by stealth in North Korea
By Andrei Lankov
One question I frequently encounter when talking about North Korea is the question of the regime's stability. People wonder for how long the current North Korean regime is likely to continue. While risking accusation of a non-critical application of the Soviet experiences to North Korea, I still would like to speculate a little on this issue - using my own late Soviet background.
As somebody who has spent his childhood and youth in the former Soviet Union, I am often asked about the circumstances that led to the collapse of what was once a vast and impenetrable superpower. People are usually surprised when I tell them that by the late 1970s my peers (young urban people) frequently
discussed the possibility of Soviet collapse in more or less immediate future.
By the time Mikhail Gorbachev was a rising star in the Soviet hierarchy, it was apparent to many of us that the Soviet state was not sustainable in the long run.
The Soviet Union of the late 1970s - that is, of my high school years - was not a country populated by brave dissenters and devious KGB operatives, or for that matter, party zealots with steel unforgiving eyes. Such people may have existed elsewhere (who knows?), but in my lifetime I personally encountered none of these types.
In the 1970s, open dissent was quite rare in the Soviet Union. Dissenters constituted a tiny and rather isolated group, a few thousand active members or so, although there were tens of thousands of sympathizers. Most dissenters lived in Moscow and were members of the best educated and most affluent part of the Soviet population. A working-class boy like me would have had little chance of meeting such people in his daily life.
True zealots may have existed somewhere as well, but clearly not in my environment. The average Soviet person of my youth did not completely believe in official propaganda, but she/he was seldom ready to challenge the government.
People of all ages and all walks of life almost universally agreed that the system had not delivered on its earlier promise of equality and prosperity. We knew that living standards in the developed West were much higher than the Soviet Union. We did not care that living standards in most of the world were significantly lower, since we did not compare ourselves with Burma or Bolivia.
The need for change was widely understood, even though people usually disagreed on exactly what kind of change was preferable. A relatively small but significant minority were nostalgic about the times of "Great" Stalin when "things were in order, and everybody knew their place". The majority however, looked West, to the developed capitalist world.
For most Soviet people in 1980 it was quite difficult to admit that capitalism might be the way to go - after all, for three generations, this particular "c word" had highly negative connotations in the Soviet psyche. Nonetheless, the need for change was universally perceived and unconditional support for the government line and wholesale acceptance of the ruling ideology was all but unheard of.
I think about my youth when I have the opportunity to talk to North Koreans in third countries. It is important that these people are not defectors/refugees, they are just in the third country to make money by doing manual labor or engaging in small business activity. Most of them assume that, in due course, they will go home (to North Korea that is), even though some of them may nurture thoughts of defection.
What is remarkable though, is the general mood I encounter nowadays is remarkably similar to that of the Soviet Union in the late 1970s. People are not prepared to openly challenge the system, but they speak frankly about the fact that system is moving in the wrong direction. They say that something must be done, even though they disagree on what must be done, and they understand that North Korea cannot go on like this forever.
One should not be surprised about such sentiments. For nearly 70 years, the North Korean government has promised that it will, in the near future, turn the country into an earthly paradise where everything will be perfect. In most cases, such statements were made when life was tough, but difficulties were explained away as being the result of conspiracies by evil and scheming enemies or just bad luck.
This message is very similar to that of Soviet propaganda. Both in the USSR and in North Korea, such propaganda was believed by a significant part of the population - after all, the promised communist paradise was quite alluring, and few would deny that the socialist project faced resistance from determined (and perhaps scheming) enemies.
Even with the passage of time and generational change the promised paradise did not materialize. People therefore began to nurture doubts about the government promises, and it did not help that more information about the outside world began to leak into the country. People began to find out that the alleged "slaves of evil capitalists" are actually leading lives freer and more affluent than the lives of Soviet (or North Korean) people.
Maybe it is not a particularly politically correct thing to say, but in the Soviet Union, a major role was played by the relaxation of surveillance and control after Stalin's death in 1953. The late 1950s were a time of great political liberalization, when the number of political prisoners decreased a thousand-fold within a few years (arguably, the largest release of political prisoners without revolution or regime change in the world history). As a result, it became increasingly safe to criticize the regime in one's bedroom or living room.
Contrary to what many allege, North Korea in recent decade or so has also experienced a significant relaxation of domestic control, although this relaxation is far less drastic than that of the 1950s Soviet Union. Some of the actions that would have been severely punished 20 or 30 years ago are now seen as relatively minor transgressions (for example, illegal border crossings are now treated as relatively minor crimes).
The chances of being arrested for a relatively minor crime has decreased significantly, though North Korea probably still has the world's highest ratio of political prisoners as a proportion of total population.
In such a situation, it is not surprising that North Koreans are prepared to talk about politics. They are of course far more reserved than the Soviet citizenry of the 1960s and 1970s. Nonetheless, it is clear that people are increasingly impatient with government incompetence and mismanagement, and are prepared to air such grievances to friends and family. This is a new development, and in the long run such a development may have a serious impact on the internal stability of the North Korean regime.
Of course, one can argue that general disillusionment with official ideology and skepticism about the regime's official promises do not directly translate into a willingness to support a revolution, let alone initiate a revolutionary event.
Indeed, annoyance and grumbling do not a revolution make. Other conditions must also exist. First and foremost networks must exist to connect people and allow them to exchange rumor and opinion. The existence of opposition groups or at least the potential nucleus for such groups is also important.
In late communist Eastern Europe, such groups were often of an ostensibly non-political nature, but existed nonetheless (folk song societies in the Baltic states, environmental protection groups in Russia, church groups pretty much everywhere else). So far, at least, it seems that the North Korean state understands how dangerous such groups can be, and they have therefore gone to great lengths to stop their formation.
However, it seems that in spite of such efforts, the commitment to official ideas is in its death throes in North Korea of today. I strongly suspect there are few if any political dissenters in North Korea, but I also suspect that it would be quite difficult to find true believers of Pyongyang nowadays. Pretty much like the Soviet Union of the 1970s.
Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.
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