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    Korea
     Feb 25, 2011


Scent of freedom in North Korea
By Sunny Lee

BEIJING - "The riots are expanding even into North Korea. Hundreds of protesters have collided with the authorities," said South Korea's largest-selling Chosun Ilbo newspaper on Thursday, as top news on its website. Now finally, the global cascade of "Jasmine revolutions" in the Middle East and North Africa appears to have entered North Korea.

Chosun posted a North Korea map with large red circles around multiple cities to mark "riot zones", adding more drama to the report.

One of the circles is the town of Sinuiju on the border with China. "Hundreds of people clashed with security forces ... The military

 
was deployed to quell the demonstration, leaving some protesters wounded," said Chosun. While the protest was sparked by a crackdown in a market, it was "an eruption of long pent-up discontent", it said.

South Korea's online newspaper Daily NK reported on Wednesday that North Korea had created a special mobilization force to prevent any demonstrations similar to the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

Another daily, JoongAng Ilbo, said on Thursday that the authorities had begun purging elites who had studied abroad in Russia for fear of a possible coup by people "who were exposed to a Western lifestyle".

Yet another vernacular newspaper, Donga Ilbo, on Thursday ran a piece on the "dramatic increase" of North Korean females choosing prostitution amid worsening economic hardship, linking it to the growing social instability of the country.

Indeed, hopes of a Jasmine revolution in North Korea are rising amid coverage of increasing pockets of resistance across the country, including the cities of Jongju, Yongchon and Sonchon, to mention a few.

Citing several South Korean sources, the Korea JoongAng Daily in Seoul on Thursday said Meng Jianzhu, China's minister of public security, made a trip this month to North Korea to discuss ways to prevent the wave of democracy protests in the Middle East from spreading to China and North Korea.

A high-ranking government source in Seoul told the newspaper that Meng discussed with Dear Leader Kim Jong-il ways to prevent public protests based on information gathered on the tumult in Tunisia and Egypt.

"North Korea and China had a common understanding as they have been nervous that the demands for democracy from the Middle East could spread. They are likely to have discussed means to prevent a mobile [telephone] revolution from happening in North Korea by using Chinese technology to trace phone calls made by North Koreans who communicate with the world," said the source in the piece.

Meanwhile, the United States government-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) said resistance against the government in North Korea was growing. A North Korean resident in Chongjin, North Hamgyong province, told RFA that an unidentified group of assailants stoned the city's former inspection chief to death this month, amid an increasing level of food thefts and anti-government acts. In a most telling sign of the breakup of social control, Chosun said even solders, hungry for food, were joining the protests.

Despite the raft of reports, North Korea experts in China remain nonplussed. "No, no, no. I don't think a revolution similar to the ones in the Middle East can happen in North Korea," said Zhu Feng, a professor of international studies at Peking University in Beijing. "North Korea has been the most deeply locked country in the world. I don't think the news in the Middle East is likely to penetrate into North Korea. And I am pretty sure few North Koreans actually know what's happening out there."

Liu Jiangyong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University, agreed. "Not a big chance for North Korea," he said. Liu also warned against overstating Meng's visit to North Korea, saying that North Korea was just one of the countries on Meng's itinerary.

Liu Ming, a North Korea expert with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, also rejects the view that North Korea is vulnerable to what's happening in the Middle East. "The Arabian countries under trouble are all linked to each other. On the contrary, North Korea is very much isolated. And its probably only channel for interacting with the outside world is through China. Therefore, unless big unrest occurs in China, North Korea will be intact," said Liu in Shanghai.

Kim Jong-dae, a frequent TV commentator on North Korea who heads the military magazine D&D Focus, in Seoul, believes China will play a crucial role in propping up North Korea. "China will come up with a plan to absorb the shock in case North Korea becomes unstable," he said.

On the surface, there are some similarities between the Arab countries of Tunisia and Egypt and North Korea, such as decades of dictatorship and economic hardship. But analysts point out there is another key ingredient for the situation to lead to a revolution.

"It's the presence of anti-government factions and a good networking among them," said Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "This is not present in North Korea. So, the news reports in South Korean media about a possible coup in the North are wishful thinking at this moment." Kim agrees: "The late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung said the biggest enemy is not the US, but the enemy within."

Lee said that the North's leadership, having witnessed the collapse of the socialist eastern European bloc, will be naturally worried about the situation in the Middle East and launch harsh crackdowns on even slight signs of civil discontent. This would give outside observers the wrong impression that the country was breaking down, when the reality is not the case.

To know whether the situation inside North Korea amounts to major instability or not, Kim suggests the world should turn its attention to the US and China, not North Korea. In other words, "the writing on the wall" is outside North Korea, not inside. "If there is any true sign of instability in North Korea, China and the US will have an emergency meeting first to discuss the matter. That's the sign," said Kim.

Sunny Lee (sleethenational@gmail.com) is a Seoul-born columnist and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Crying wolf in Pyongyang
(Feb 23, '11)

North Korean excesses under fire
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