North Korea’s leadership is moving efficiently to portray Kim Jong-un, chosen heir of his late father, as the country’s unchallenged ruler, with state TV repeatedly broadcasting images of senior military leaders pledging fealty to the son. The military is on alert amid a choreographed spectacle of thousands of mourners filling the cold streets of Pyongyang. The border with China—North Korea’s only real link to the outside world—has been sealed. While the order for the military alert was officially issued by Kim Jong-un, it is expected that the top generals will actually rule as a sort of regency in the transition period. (Kim Jong-il himself, selected as Kim Il-sung’s successor in the 1970s, did not officially assume power until three years after the death of his father in 1994. Kim Jong-il’s leadership saw the most difficult times in North Korea since the Korean War, with a great famine known in the North as the “arduous march” claiming perhaps 2 million lives in the mid-1990s.) Some observers point to Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek as a “technocrat” who will wield real power in the transition—and perhaps seek to open the country. Inevitably drawing a comparison to Deng Xiaoping, it is pointed out he was purged in 2004 only to be restored to the ruling elite 18 months later—and to become the key figure in the de facto caretaker government after Kim Jong-il first suffered a serious stroke in August 2008. (NYT, NYT, WSJ, Dec. 21; National Post, Dec. 20; Korea Policy Institute, Dec. 19)
With all the concern in the West over a power struggle within North Korea’s elite, or a display of military aggression, few commentators have noted the potential for the emergence of a protest movement among the country’s long-suffering populace. This is not as far-fetched as it superficially seems. This February, as the Arab Spring protests were riveting the world, a spate of brief but courageous (and, we may assume, desperate) protests were in fact held in the so-called People’s Democratic Republic of Korea. South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper, citing an unnamed North Korean source, said demonstrations broke out on Feb. 14—two days before Kim Jong-il’s birthday—in the cities of Jongju, Yongchon and Sonchon, near the Chinese border.
The State Security Department—the all-powerful secret police agency under Kim Jong-il’s direct control—investigated the incidents, but, met with a wall of silence, failed to identify the figures who initiated the protests. “When such an incident took place in the past, people used to report their neighbors to the security forces, but now they’re covering for each other,” the source said.
Economic grievances were, not surprisingly, behind the protests, with the favored slogan being “Give us fire [electricity] and rice.” Chosun Ilbo wrote: “North Korea experts say these protests are largely motivated by immediate material concerns like food shortages, rather than by any desire to overthrow the regime.” (Chosun Ilbo, Feb. 25; Asia News, Feb. 23)
Well, when the young street merchant Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia exactly a year ago, he was also “motivated by by immediate material concerns”—but his action sparked an international revolutionary movement that has now brought down several regimes (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and, depending how you count, Yemen), and threatened nearly all the rest across the Arab world, from Morocco to Bahrain.
The procrustean separation of “economic” and “political” grievances is largely a creation of Western pundits and policy-makers who seek to control the trajectory of revolutionary movements. The protesters themselves rarely suffer from such intellectual maladies. There is a seed beneath the snow in North Korea, we can be sure.
Back in October, when Seoul protesters joined the global Occupy Wall Street campaign, we noted with irony that North Korea’s official news agency took the opportunity to gloat about the “pent-up wrath against avaricious big banks and companies that caused economic inequality.” If “pent-up wrath” against Stalinist bureaucrats now finds expression in the DPRK’s transition, it will be interesting to see if the Occupy movement in South Korea and the world will be able to meaningfully build solidarity—before the global elites can exploit the situation to effect a capitalist transition, as they did, mutatis mutandis, after the passing of Mao Zedong.