Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ask a Korean! News: Can North Korea Democratize Like Egypt?

As always, Mr. Joo Seong-Ha does not disappoint. His latest installment on comparing the democratization trend in the Middle East with North Korea is translated below. (Please note that Mr. Joo's regular job is an international desk reporter at a major Korean daily.)

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Observing the successful citizen revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, many may have held a strand of hope that such citizen revolution could occur in North Korea as well. A considerable number of news articles in fact tried to analyze that link. But I am the opposite: seeing the Middle Eastern citizen revolution made me believe even stronger about the difficulty of toppling a true dictatorial regime. Without having to discuss any kingdoms, Libya is an excellent example. Libya is situated between Tunisia and Egypt, but not even a weak breeze of democracy can be felt. Actually, there is no way to tell from the outside whether there is even a breeze or not. Why?

Considering many aspects such as deification, oppression, isolation and information control, Libya as a dictatorial state is at a different level from Tunisia and Egypt. Muammar al-Gaddafi has been ruling for 42 years, much longer than Tunisia's Ben Ali (23 years) or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak (30 years). In Libya, even foreigners have to call Gaddafi the "Leader." Libya is a step beyond with respect to political oppression also. In Tunisia and Egypt, one can at least find out where the arrested person went; in Libya, once you disappear, that's it.

But the most prominent difference between Libya and Tunisia/Egypt is its isolation. Libya is different from Tunisia, which is considerably Westernized, and Egypt that welcomes millions of tourists every year. Though Libya began to improve its relationship with the West in 2003 by abandoning weapons of mass destruction, it had been under America's economic sanction for more than 20 years.

This is similar to North Korea and Cuba. North Korea and Libya also share other similarities, such as long-term dictatorship, deification, attempt at succession, oppression of political dissidents and control of the press. They also share similar themes, such as pursuit of socialism, one party system, anti-Americanism, support of terrorism and development of weapons of mass destruction. What is more, both regime sent their heir apparent to Switzerland to study.

But it is difficult to compare the level of authoritarian-ness between North Korea and Libya, which are both ruled by two dictators who were both born in 1942. North Korea has been a dictatorship for 66 years, since the times of Kim Il-Sung. It chugs along with three-generation succession. Libya does not have political prisons that hold hundreds of thousands, nor does it have guilt-by-association system like North Korea does. Libya's political prisoners are estimated at several hundreds, and several thousands at most.

Libya's isolation is no isolation at all compared to North Korea's. Nearly all Libyans have Internet access, and social network services like Facebook are fairly widespread. Libya also has more than a million foreign workers. It also has more than ten times per capita GDP. It is vastly different from North Korea, in which Internet and social networking are nonexistent, no foreigner can be seen outside of Pyongyang and beggars are all over the country.

It appears that the more apt comparison to Libya is Romania, whose authoritarianism fell with Nicolae Ceaucescu's execution in 1989. Regardless of the strength of Romania's dictatorship, it was deeply tied with its sponsor, the Soviet Union. The change in the Soviet Union meant change in Romania. Also, Eastern European countries had a close relationship at the communist party level, and ran their politics in a similar manner. Thus, they could not avoid the democratization dominoes.

But in Romania, the secret police (equivalent to North Korea's Security Bureau) fired indiscriminately to the protesting public in Bucharest. In just a few days there were 1142 dead and 3138 injured. Secret police's gunfires only ceased after the news of Ceaucescu's execution. Luckily, Romanian military did not shoot the protesters, as the head of the military withdrew the soldiers against the orders to suppress the protests. Some lower-ranking soldiers interpreted this to mean that it was ok for them to join the protesters, who then waged a battle against the secret police. If that didn't happen, how many citizens would have died? Especially if the military shot at the civilians? Even so, Romania had to pay a dear price of blood. This is how difficult it is to topple a true dictatorship.

In North Korea, which has much more sophisticated and ruthless dictatorship system and secret police than Libya or Romania, citizen revolution is that much more difficult. In fact, one can say there is no citizen to join the revolution. Nonetheless, if the flames of citizen revolution spreads to Libya, one may be able to have a feint hope on North Korea. One can recognize that even a strong dictatorship cannot avoid the wind of change if such wind reaches Libya.

But if Libya stands tall amidst the gusts from Tunisia and Egypt....

리비아를 보면 북한의 민중봉기 가능성이 보인다 [Nambuk Story]

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. Thanks for translating this. I think Mr. Joo brings up some very good points, especially about the isolation of North Korea. In Egypt, social networking and the internet played a major role in getting the protests off the ground; no such thing could occur in North Korea. Even under their dictator, Egyptians could travel abroad and get international news from many sources; the average North Korean definitely can't. For those reasons alone, overthrowing the current regime would be difficult to start, let alone actually accomplish.

  2. Kadhafi might be a dictator, but Libyans are pretty well off, compared to their neighbors, thanks mostly to the oil wealth of the country, so there is less reason to start a revolution.

    However, Libya did change its foreign policy in the last decade, so I still hope a regime-directed reform could happen in North Korea as well. Just as Kadhafi's Western-educated son Saif seems more sensible than his father, Kim Jong-un might decide to lead the country on the Chinese way, economic reform without political change, when he assumes power.

    Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria, not Romania. The clashes between the Romanian police and civilians happened mostly in Timisoara and Bucharest.

  3. Well, this article didn't last too long. They just started to protest in Lybia.

  4. Yes, the article is not accurate - Sofia isn't in Romania, it's in Bulgaria where similar things happened at that time but the events in Bulgaria weren't violent.

  5. Thanks for the correction -- that was the Korean's error and not Mr. Joo's. Sofia is fixed to Bucharest.

  6. I think Mr. Joo makes several excellent points, particularly about the isolation of the North Korean state. I think one of the biggest differences however in not just the North Korean case but also the Chinese one (circa 1989) is that the military forces of both nations are willing to pull the trigger against its own citizenry to help maintain the regime. Tunisian and Egyptians were able to topple their autocrats with relative ease because the largest and most powerful state apparatus, the military, was unwilling to turn against unarmed, protesting civilians. Mr. Joo's own observation of Romania is the same. China's uprising in 1989 on the other hand came to a screeching halt when the PLA decided to roll in the tanks.

    I suppose too there is also the cost of doing such a thing. For Egypt, which trades heavily with the West, to use the military to crush unarmed protesters would probably lead to economy-crippling sanctions. For nations like North Korea which has nothing to lose or China which doesn't seem to really care when the primacy of the CCP & PLA are at stake, the cost is one they're willing to pay.

    Yes, it is possible to still topple dictatorships backed by the military through popular revolution, but it requires a much stronger trigger to start and much greater sacrifice of the citizenry than what the Egyptians and Tunisians thankfully had to pay.

  7. nice post

    one thing the author forgot to add: Chinese support. China will never ever ever allow North Korea to "revolutionize" or "liberate" in any connotations of the word. Kim or no Kim, doesnt matter, there's always a replacement. Always.

  8. An interesting comparison between despotic regimes. It's too bad that the author did not make the distinction between what are simply authoritarian regimes in the Arab world and arguably the last totalitarian regime, North Korea. This is an important difference that precludes the possibility of a popular uprising in the DPRK.

  9. @cornflakes I have to disagree. While China probably has little interest in a democratic North Korea, a current North Korean regime is also becoming an increasing liability for them as well in part because it's behavior is giving the United States the excuse to continue it's strong military presence in the region, particularly the Yellow Sea. I think they've tried hard to "convert" North Korea from a totalitarian regime into merely an authoritarian one along the lines of the Chinese model (which, despite it's flaws, is still an improvement of the current system).

    @Douglas I also think that "preclude" is too strong a word. Popular uprising is still very possible, but the price that needs to be paid is much steeper. Therefore, a greater catalyst will be needed before people rise up against the regime.

  10. If they had democracy, would they know what to do with it?

    It's a fair question, and I suspect one soon to be asked in Egypt, Tunisia and South Sudan.

    A functioning system needs a lot of support:

    * Sufficient independent media for candidate marketing and issue discussion

    * An electoral organization capable of basic logistics and fair counts

    * People who can read candidate messages and make a sane decision. If you had never voted, never saw your parents voted, never seen parodies of the electoral system in the media, can you smell candidate BS?

    I could see a "new-look" North Korea having to go through many of the same steps of evolution the South did, maybe with slight acceleration. If it remains a sovereign state, it could easily be 2040 before it turned into a democracy.

  11. @SJ

    I wish I had your optimism, but what little I know about the DPRK points to a society that is years away kind of revolt. If we want to use a China analogy, then the North Koreans are somewhere between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, let alone a Tiananmen Square. There is no sign of a Korean Deng, only a sickly Mao and Jiang Qing plotting to pass on the chaos they've created to the next generation of socio-paths. The opening of the country that would begin to create a civil society and relative freedoms where a revolt of 1989 could even be imagined is simply not there, unless in an embryonic form in the markets that have sprung. Again I wish I had your optimism but I just don't see it.

  12. Now that Gadhafi may fall imminently in Libya, revisiting the idea that N.Korea may be able to democritize through internal revolt in a similar fashion is not inconceivable. Lots of deaths of civilians would be involved, but it is possible the internal cabinet members and higher ups may turn against a completely draconian response to an uprising. In the end, I believe N. Koreans are deeply nationalistic, seeing the wholesale massacre of their own countrymen who are peacefully protesting would be too much to deny the implicit moral evilness of such acts. Such is the case happening right now in Libya.


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