Next: North Korean Spring?

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.

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  1. North Korea: springtime for capitalists or protesters?
    The race is on. Guess who’s in the lead? From AP, Feb. 25:

    PYONGYANG, North Korea — In his last public appearance, late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il went shopping.

    He peered at the prices affixed to shelves packed with everything from Pantene shampoo to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. And he nodded his approval of Pyongyang’s version of Walmart, which was soon to open courtesy of China.

    The visit played up a decidedly un-communist development in North Korea: A new culture of commerce is springing up, with China as its inspiration and source. The market-savvy Chinese are introducing the pleasures of the megamart to a small niche of North Koreans, and flooding the country’s border regions with cheap goods.

    And they are doing it with the full approval of North Korea’s leadership. The new consumerism is part of a campaign launched three years ago to build up the economy, and so the image of new leader Kim Jong Un.

    At the Kwangbok area supermarket in downtown Pyongyang, that translates into lime green frying pans, pink Minnie Mouse pajamas, popcorn and a line of silvery high heels sparkling in the sunlight.

    “It is very good to come to this shop and buy goods which I like by feeling them and looking over them myself,” said shopper Pak So Jong, bundled up in a winter jacket with a furry collar, as she examined bags of locally made sweets and biscuits a few days after the store’s opening.

    High heels and Minnie Mouse peejays. Onward workers, ho.

  2. North Korea: definitely not springtime for refugees
    High heels, Minnie Mouse peejays and “extermination” of refugees. File under “worst of both worlds”… From BBC News, Feb. 27:

    South Korea’s parliament has passed a resolution demanding that China stops the repatriation of North Korean refugees.

    The move follows a string of protests over the fate of some 30 North Koreans who are reportedly facing deportation from China and harsh repercussions…

    They also called on the United Nations and other bodies to put pressure on Beijing to follow international law.

    It is estimated that more than 20,000 North Koreans have fled to the South since the 1950s. The majority of them escape via China.

    China says that the North Koreans are “illegal economic migrants” who must be returned home. Its stand on the North Koreans is not a new policy—it has been sending back those it finds within its borders for many years.

    But there is increased concern over the issue since the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

    Reports from inside North Korea say the country’s new leader has issued a decree pledging to exterminate the families of anyone caught trying to flee…

  3. Kim Jong-un as Deng Xiaoping: more evidence
    From the New York Times, Feb. 29:

    North Korea Agrees to Curb Nuclear Work; U.S. Offers Aid
    WASHINGTON — North Korea announced on Wednesday that it would suspend its nuclear weapons tests and uranium enrichment and allow international inspectors to monitor activities at its main nuclear complex. The surprise announcement raised the possibility of ending a diplomatic impasse that has allowed the country’s nuclear program to continue for years without international oversight.

    The Obama administration called the steps “important, if limited.” But the announcement seemed to signal that North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, is at least willing to consider a return to negotiations and to engage with the United States, which pledged in exchange to ship tons of food aid to the isolated, impoverished nation.

  4. Buddhist monk breaks DPRK information blockade
    A fascinating story in today’s New York Times on Venerable Pomnyun, a Buddhist monk from South Korea who has launched a charity called Good Friends to aid North Korean refugees who have crossed the Yalu River into northeast China. An associated website, North Korea Today, documents actual conditions in the DPRK, relying on a network of informants, mostly drawn from the refugees it seems. You’d think South Korea’s right would welcome efforts to break the North’s information blockade, but the right-wing disses Pomnyun as a “political demagogue wearing the mask of religion.” President Lee Myung-bak actually accused him of exaggerating the suffering in the North. In 2008, Pomnyun went on a 70-day hunger strike to highlight North Koreans’ plight. “World leaders and the media talked obsessively about Kim Jong-il and his nuclear weapons and missiles,” Pomnyun said. “But what about the North Korean people?”

    In what is invariably a good sign that someone is doing something right, the Venerable Pomnyun is getting flack from both ends of the spectrum. “Progressives criticize me for drawing attention to human rights violations in the North, and conservatives attack me for calling for aid for the North,” Pomnyun told the Times, adding that he has been accused of working for both the CIA and the North Korean regime—depending on the critic. “My aim is neither to support nor to oppose North Korea. I am just drawing attention to the humanitarian crisis.”

  5. Communist “caste system” in North Korea?

    North Korea's "caste system" leads to abuses and human rights violations in the country, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) reported June 6. The report alleges that the caste system, known as Songbun, is used as justification for the systematic abuse and arbitrary detention of some North Korean citizens. Members of the lower castes are classified as "class enemies" and are not afforded basic human rights. The government also reportedly relies on the Songbun classification, which is assigned at birth, to determine guilt or innocence in criminal proceedings. HRNK called on North Korea to eliminate the use of Songbun classifications as the basis for discriminating against citizens, and to work to eliminate the caste system in North Korean society. (Jurist, June 6)

  6. NEP for DPRK?
    From Reuters, Sept. 23:

    Exclusive: North Korea plans agriculture reforms
    North Korea plans to allow farmers to keep more of their produce in an attempt to boost agricultural output, a source with close ties to Pyongyang and Beijing said, in a move that could boost supplies, help cap rising food prices and ease malnutrition.

    The move to liberalize agriculture under new leader Kim Jong-un, who took office in December 2011 after the death of his father, would reverse a crackdown on private production that started in 2005. It comes amid talk that the youngest Kim to rule the impoverished North is considering reforms to boost the economy.

    “Peasants will have incentive to grow more food. They can keep and sell in the market about 30-50 percent of their harvest depending on the region,” said the source.

    At present, most farm output is sold to the government at a state auction price that has diverged from the market rate.

    It was impossible to verify the plan independently in North Korea, one of the world’s most closed states, although the source has proved reliable in the past, predicting North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 days before it was conducted, as well as the ascent of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek.

    The plans come as some websites run by North Korean defector groups have said the price of rice – a staple food – more than doubled at the end of August from the start of June.

    The surge in rice prices, cited by DailyNK, a North Korean defector website (, was driven by a fear of economic reforms that could in fact be punitive, like a 2009 currency revaluation that confiscated most peoples’ savings. This report also could not be independently verified.

    We don’t quite get this. If all produce must be sold to the state at a fixed price, how can price spikes be driven by factors like “fear of economic reforms”? The DailyNK site, of course, is in Korean, and offers us little help. Anyone?