Small pockets of resistance have been springing up in North Korea since last year, with protests sometimes turning violent, sources in the North say. On the night of Feb. 14, two days before leader Kim Jong-il's birthday, scores of people in Jongju, Yongchon and Sonchon in North Pyongan Province gathered and shouted, "Give us fire [electricity] and rice."
But 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.
According to Prof. Kim Young-soo of Sogang University, the protests were not sparked by one or two isolated events such as the botched currency reform in December 2009 or the hereditary transition of power from leader Kim Jong-il to his son and heir Jong-un. "They're an eruption of long pent-up discontent," Kim said. "But it seems the discontent was set off because people didn't receive their special holiday rations, and electricity was cut off."
Prof. Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University said, "Small protests over material problems have taken place frequently in the North because respect for the regime is dwindling. We'll see more of these protests unless the regime takes drastic steps to improve living conditions."
◆ Easier Access to Information
Another factor is that many North Koreans now have almost real-time access to outside information. "As North Koreans have more contact with information about the outside world, they are becoming bolder," said Prof. Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University. "This doesn't mean the regime has softened but that North Koreans have been woken up by information."
Kim Heung-kwang of defector group North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity told a hearing at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea on Wednesday that in October 2009, about 18,000 students of the elite Kim Il Sung University had their personal belongings examined and some 2,000 of them were found to have CDs and USB memory sticks with anti-North Korean propaganda videos."
This means that many in the North Korean elite now know that the outside world is quite different from the way they were told it was.
◆ Chinese Influence
Whether popular protests will spread in the North depends on developments in China, observers speculate. North Koreans in the border area will hear immediately about anti-government protests in major Chinese cities, and could take their cue from them.
"There's a lively exchange of information in the open-air markets and traders want information ahead of others," Jang Jin-song, a defector and poet, told the hearing. "In recent days, people's top priority has shifted from loyalty to the leader to money. There is no absolute obedience to the regime now."
The quicker people obtain information, the better their potential economic position. Those who receive money from outside are no longer hiding their wealth but showing it off.