February 18, 2011 13:22
The North Korean authorities are apparently on full alert as news trickles in about pro-democracy protests in the Middle East despite an official blackout. According to a source, security agents have banned all gatherings, especially of university students, as news spreads about the public revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world.
The source added that partitions have been removed in restaurants across the country, and security agents break up even small gatherings in open-air markets.
"This is the first time I saw even partitions removed from restaurants in North Korea," a recent defector said. Students in Pyongyang have begun whispering that the Kim Jong-il regime, which has ruled for 50 years, needs to change, and news about the ouster of dictators in North Africa is spreading in open-air markets.
North Korea's state-run media have either blacked out news of the protests completely or are reporting falsely that they are being staged by anti-American forces. News about the protests in Egypt, which ousted president Hosni Mubarak, is nonetheless spreading because hundreds of North Koreans visit China each month to make money, and what they learn there is quickly disseminated throughout the wealthier classes in the North.
The shock of Mubarak's ouster is strong since he maintained a close relationship with fellow dictator Kim Jong-il, observers say. Mubarak had tapped his son Gamal as his successor, much as Kim Jong-il is handing over the baton to his son Jong-un.
Egyptian telecom firm Orascom provides mobile phone services in North Korea.
North Koreans have been restive since a failed currency reform in late 2009 and they suffer acute food shortage and bitterly cold weather.
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