TWQ: A North Korean Spring? - Winter 2012
January 1, 2012
Is revolution similar to the Arab Spring possible in North Korea? The answer from most scholars and intelligence analysts has been “no”—that the Pyongyang regime’s stability in the aftermath of the events in the Middle East and North Africa is an “old question” that was answered in the 1990s when the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea) faced the most critical test of its life, and survived. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the drastic cuts in patron aid from China, and the onset of famine that killed hundreds of thousands all constituted the ultimate test of DPRK stability, and the regime staggered on through it all. Thus, the assumption is that the Arab Spring has little relevance to the DPRK. The scholarly literature tends to support this assessment. Scholars like Georgetown University’s Daniel Byman have argued that Kim Jong-il has effectively “coup-proofed” himself through an elaborate system of patronage, bribery, and draconian rule.
This may be true, but the phenomenal events that have taken place in the Middle East and North Africa have shown us two things. First, in spite of all of the reasons for thinking that things won’t change, they could, and quite suddenly. And second, the mere presence of variables that could spell the collapse of an authoritarian regime tells us nothing about when or if that collapse could happen. Among the ruins of collapsed dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, experts have picked out causes that have long existed, yet they cannot explain why they led to collapse in 2011 as opposed to years, or even decades, earlier. Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya had each been in power longer than Kim Jong-il in North Korea. Can we simply assume that events in the Middle East and North Africa have no bearing on the North Korean regime?
Political and social dynamics since the 1990s crisis have been moving in opposite directions, and this gap is only being widened by the leadership transition from Kim Jong-il to his son, Kim Jong-eun. Ironically, we should pay less attention to scholars and experts who dismiss the Arab Spring’s relevance, and more attention to Kim Jong-il’s actions in the aftermath of the Middle East tumult, which do not look like the actions of a leader confident that his worst days were left behind some 20 years ago. Does Kim appear to fear the Arab Spring? Absolutely. What does this mean for the future of his regime?