Will the "Jasmine Revolutions" of the Middle East sweep through China and North Korea? Hopes are rising as accounts emerge from the North about pockets of resistance in the cities of Jongju, Yongchon and Sonchon in North Pyongan Province on Feb. 14, two days before North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's birthday.
No concerted anti-government protests have broken out in North Korea, but there have been continuous small protests by people demanding food. In early 2008, when North Korean authorities banned women under 50 from selling goods in open-air markets, groups of women in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province apparently staged a protest in front of the regional market management office and demanded either food rations or a reversal of the decree. City officials ended up scrapping the ban, according to a defector from Chongjin.
After the botched currency reform in late 2009, North Koreans started to voice their complaints more explicitly. North Korean defectors say people in Hamhung burned the worthless old currency in protest. There are also accounts of hungry soldiers staging mass protests. North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a group of defectors, said soldiers with a unit that mines uranium rejected orders handed down the chain of command on Jan. 17 because they were hungry. Even food rations for soldiers are apparently being handed out irregularly, despite the country's "military-first" doctrine.
The South Korean government is keeping watch on developments in the North as its economy deteriorates. An intelligence officer pointed out that the protests in the Middle East were triggered above all by difficult living conditions. But the intelligence agencies here believe the chances of a Jasmine Revolution in North Korea are slim for now.
Unlike people in the Middle East, North Koreans have virtually no access to the Internet, and they have no experience staging organized protests. "The only political experience North Koreans have is the Chosun Dynasty, Japanese colonial occupation and the Kim dynasty dictatorship," a defector said. "They just don’t have a lot of awareness about democratization or regime change."
Also, the military remains fiercely loyal to Kim Jong-il. In Egypt, the Hosni Mubarak regime collapsed when the military turned its back on it. And compared with oil-producing Libya with its per-capita GNI of US$18,400 (as of 2009), North Korea's GNI is only $960, which means that there is practically no middle class that could orchestrate public discontent.
The North Korean military is nonetheless on high alert, concerned about the spread of the small outbursts of discontent, as China is also seeing signs of public uprisings including a protest in the Wangfujing district downtown Beijing. Quoting sources in Onsong, North Hamgyong Province, the DailyNK said Friday that news of the protests in Egypt are spreading in North Korea via Chinese TV channels or phone calls with defectors. "Officials are having a tough time trying to keep the rumors from spreading," it said.
Japan's Kyodo News reported on Monday that North Korean authorities have stopped renting mobile phones to visiting foreigners, and an editorial in the North's official Rodong Shinmun daily stressed "unity." "Calls for democracy have reached China, so North Korea will deploy the security forces to crack down on its people," a defector said.