Can the situation in North Korea and the rest of the region get any worse? The starvation of a decade ago killed 10% of the population, 2 million people by many accounts. That did not provoke dramatic change, not in the way that the Eastern Block crumbled almost overnight.
NK has one of the largest standing armies in the world. It is also in the epicentre of one of the fastest growing regions of the world, an intersection of super-power interests. Bizarrely it is a stable situation, supported by the fact that NK would be assured of destruction if there was any form of substantive attack that provoked a meaningful response. Obliteration. Ideally, if you are in the ruling family, you’d be staying at one of your homes in Moscow or perhaps Beijing, nicely out of the way while the whole place burns. Maybe not though, and this is certainly a scenario to concentrate the minds.
North Korea simply cannot get any worse. Getting worse means absolute destruction. And thanks to all the enticements and riches on offer if the situation gets better, one comes quickly to the view that things can only get better. Inevitably Spring Follows Winter.
It is easy to find signs that this is already the case. North Korea has two mobile phone networks, with the latest 3G network, Koryolink (www.otelecom.com/Subsidiaries/details.aspx?id=157), gaining almost 200,000 subscribers in 18 months. There are already a ton of phones in use in the north of the country, as the China Mobile towers spray bandwidth on both sides of the border.
With communication comes the transfer of information – an ability to get information out, and to get information in. New-style news organisations, like DailyNK (www.dailyNK.com), use these sources to report the news from the country, both the good news and the bad news. It is impossible to control the spread of information, once the infrastructure is in place.
Savvy North Koreans could always get access to information from South Korea, even if it required bravery, smarts and money. In Nothing to Envy, journalist Barbara Demick tells the story of the defectors who jerry-rigged locked radios with elastic bands to overcome the tuner locks on radios, or used needles to tinker with the innards of TV sets, so as not to unpick the plastic seal that in theory made the TV set locked. (http://amzn.to/cQMBsu)
Human beings are intensely curious, seeking out opportunities to be stimulated. Even if we are happy in our world, we are curious to see what we might be missing elsewhere. Hence a televised workers demonstration in Seoul is intriguing, not because it shows the NK regime is right in denouncing the crimes of capitalism, but for the fact that the protesters are wearing cool clothes, leather shoes, and everyone has a cell phone.
The starvation period made Spring inevitable, even if it will be a decade in coming. When people are fighting for survival, people change. As the state stopped providing for people’s needs, they had to find a way, any way, of meeting them directly. So railway guards take bribes to overlook people traveling without papers, and smuggling large amounts of contraband. A single travel chest can contain a thousand ultra-cheap pirated DVDs, each disk containing seditious material like Friends Series 3, or South Korean soap operas. Soldiers become people-smugglers, earning the easiest money in the world as they effectively are paid to smuggle defectors past themselves.
Freedom of information changes things, as does money. Lots and lots of lovely money. Money fundamentally changes the structure of an economy, forcing new emergent behaviours and structures to emerge. Instead of the state providing food as part of your employment contract, you get money that allows you to choose what you would like to eat, whether you would prefer to eat sweet or savoury items, or whether you would like a haircut instead of a tasty snack. The existence of money changes a society so fundamentally that it is forced to become capitalist.
At this point, the forbidden knowledge of the fall of the Soviet Union and communism starts playing out. In a Russian text, shared around by brave free thinkers, the rationale that capitalism has somehow been tamed of its excesses, with tools like anti-trust rules, demonstrates that capitalism is not the evil that people thought. And with China just a muddy river away, it is patently obvious that there are models of existence that do not revolve around hero-worship, poverty and despair.
North Korea needs money. Its former trading partners stopped trading long ago, with the resulting famine directly attributable to the loss of the aid provided by other communist countries. Now it needs to leverage what it has to buy the things it lacks. There are plentiful supplies of iron and coal, perfect for steel making. Indeed when Japan invaded in 1910, the northern provinces were major suppliers of steel. China is a great next-door neighbour to have in this case, as it continues to industrialise to raise the living standards of its people. Trading connections are therefore vital, and with trade come connections to the outside world.
The biggest element of the inevitable outcome is the structural adjustment of the regime itself, and the role of the ruling family. North Korea is a simple system to change. Change the top and the entire system changes. And the inevitability of death is the guiding force in this transition. Simply put, Daddy is going to die. His kids, three sons and a daughter, will – if they actually inherit the country – have different views about running the country. They are unlikely to be savages, having lived and been exposed to China, Japan, the west. Instead they will be different, more open, in all likelihood embarrassed of their own existence as leaders of one of the worst places on earth to be human.
And with that thought – saved for another post – we will be left with questions. Is positive change really inevitable? How can it be possible? Or, if you live in my world, how do we make it happen?