Food is a basic human need. You take it away from people, or make it too expensive to buy, and the people get angry. Very angry. Until they starve. And then it’s the survivors that take over.
It was amazing that there was no revolution in North Korea during the last famine in the 1990s (See Wikipedia ref). With 2 million people dying, from a population of just 22 million, that was a huge portion of the population ceasing to exist. One has to ask the question why change did not happen then.
In the mid to late 1990s there was no zeitgeist for regime change. The Berlin Wall had come down a decade ago, and China’s own protest moment had long passed. There was no pervasive use of the Internet, and barely any cell phones (certainly not in North Korea).
What the famines did, though, was destabilize the regime for the future. People were forced to do anything to survive. They became illegal stall owners, farmers, and smugglers. Everyone was on the take, in a very small way, just to be able to live.
The rate of defectors jumped from practically zero to a thousand a year (Wikipedia). This might not sound like a lot, but given the policy of 3 generation damage (we imprison your grandparents, your parents and your kids if you leave), the fact that the number was greater than zero makes you realize the fading hold the regime had.
Today there are just a handful of people who really count in North Korea, although the future of the country will be determined by the entire populace, just as in Egypt. The most important people are the Generals, they old guys who command the military muscle and the real hold on the country. Right now, any self-respecting sixty-year old general is thinking:
“I am not going to take orders from a 28-year old fat kid, no way in hell”.
The Potemkin country that is North Korea will vanish, and mere into Korea, almost overnight.
There is no succession in North Korea. After all, how can any of the sons stand in the shoes of Kim Jong-Il, the glorious leader who played golf only once and hit 11 hole in ones? And yet, even this master of pomp cannot magic food on the table to feed his own people.
His children have abandoned him. His eldest son is known to live in Moscow, Beijing and Macau (he has a complex relationship structure, wives and girlfriends and the like). The other children, a daughter and two sons, don’t seem to exist in the country either. In all likelihood they also live abroad, in the same places as they have lived under their fake Diplomatic Passports. You could even argue that the reason why the generals have not staged a coup is that the children are not there to be murdered.
North Korea is in a desperate state, and they know it. The new world is closing in fast, at network speed, and there is nothing they can do to stop it. The country boosts one of the fastest growing mobile phone networks in the world, built at a cost of $400 million by Egypt’s Orascom. The Koryolink network, now claiming over 350,000 subscribers, is just one of two other networks, one an old 2G network, and the other the ‘over-the-wall’ network of China Mobile, with its cell phone towers peering across the northern border, providing two-way interaction to the folks on the ground with smuggled in pay-as-you go phones.
News spreads, even if it is not yet at Internet speed. The technology elite in Silicon Valley report almost no web traffic coming from North Korea, and yet channels exist to et information in and out of the country.
It will not be a surprise to know that they regime is acutely aware of the events in Tunisia and Egypt. There is no mere coincidence that the North Koreans engaged their southern counterparts in talks about reuniting families (Source – Guardian – 9 Feb 2011). Not only is the country on the brink of yet another famine (Source – Washington Post 1 Feb 2011 – harsh winter), but the people are gradually finding a voice.
Protests in North Korea are quite different to other countries. As a successful ‘self-spy’ state, the risk of being outted as a dissident is both probably and deeply damaging. And yet, there is a group of people who are practically programmed to protest, that being the young, the student movement. As neuroscience reveals its secrets, we learn that the adult brain only really matures in the mid-twenties. Before this time, teenagers and young adults are likely to ignore any inhibitions, and seek out extreme forms of pleasure, and that typically takes the form of rebelling to establish their own independence.
One can imagine a Silent Protest Movement, spreading quickly across the country, with some form of motif or ritual indicating being in- or –out of the movement. Just like Polish students used to stitch transistors into their clothing at school, one can imagine similar quiet, non-threatening tactics of the young. One also can imagine meeting in plain sight, in areas where large numbers of people gather regularly anyway. Not only do you get the cover of the crowd, but you are able to find new adherents through word of mouth, the buzz on the streets.
I am watching out for the first signs of active protest coming from the defector news networks. I will be expecting Silent Protests taking place in railway stations, market squares, universities.
And I would expect this movement to expand, almost by accident. To be honest, there will be lots of people milling about a railway station on any given day. It is therefore reasonable to expect that most people, at first, are not involved in any kind of protest movement at all. But what countries like Egypt have experienced, when the masses realize they have mass, a certain inertia, then things happen. Strange things. Things like revolutions in places where just a couple of weeks earlier you would never have believed that anything could change.
Likewise, when the authorities try to clamp down on these activities, they are likely to disrupt all kinds of activity, the protestors and normal people. This will effectively throw gasoline onto the sparks. Just like when the Egyptian state switched off the Internet in the early days of the protest movement in 2011. Instead of quashing the resistance, they energized the entire populace (see my thoughts on why turning off the internet was a bad idea).
So in North Korea we end up with a situation where succession is a sham. The children do not live in the country, and would rather live life large in the hotspots of Beijing and Moscow. The Generals are waiting for their moment to strike, but are frightened first of each other, and then of the very real danger of massive catastrophic interventions if military activity really kicks off on the peninsula.
And then you have China. A security analyst I was speaking with recently posed to me a controversial view. What if China was deeply scared of North Korea… turning the purported nuclear weapons towards Beijing instead of Seoul or Tokyo? A crazy old guy, living on medication following a severe stroke, is not a trustworthy person to have their finger on the nuclear button. And nor is a 28-year old fat kid.
We think of China as somehow being supportive of the regime. It is likely that there is truth in it. I believe we may have misinterpreted their motivations, and underestimate how supportive they would be of a combined Korea.
After all, both North and South Korea actively have a goal of reunification. Sure, both sides imagine the marriage on different terms, but being realistic, North Korea gets absorbed into its now wealthier half. And this would be goodness, because South Korea needs a younger workforce, and the entire region would attract investment to get up to speed fast.
One can imagine a scenario similar to Libya, when in 2003 Colonel Gaddafi changed his mind and dropped his pursuit of terrorism. Not coincidentally, Libya then paid $2bn in reparations to the Lockerbie victims, and Italy paid $5bn to say sorry for the occupation from 1911-1951. So, America offers $10bn to apologize for the damage from the Korean War, Japan offers $25bn to say sorry for its previous occupation, and China offers $20bn to say sorry for…
Now let’s get realistic. The America money goes to fund loans and investment in infrastructure firms from America. The same for Japan and China (and anyone else who would like to say sorry). The key thing is that money would start flowing into the region, a torrent of money that would greatly surpass the reported $40bn GDP (according to the CIA Facebook).
You would also have to work out what happens to the ruling family. Even now, the kids are wondering whether they will end up like Nicolae Ceauşescu in Romania and be skewered by the mob, or turn into mini-Al Gores, being paid many thousands of dollars to talk about how they decided to free their country. And as for Kim Jong-Il, I think he’d be resting at a nice large villa in Beijing, where he can live out his life in the company of his 1,000 art and film books, and have personal shoppers from Watches of Switzerland show him the latest in wrist-wreckers. (see revelations in Time magazine from 2003 – from NK defectors)
Some of the generals get bought off. Some will end up owning fast food restaurant chains, and expensive land ripe for development. Others would rather join their colleagues in the South Korean army, happy in the knowledge that their troupes can at least now afford socks to go with the army boots.
And the people will be free. Free to choose. Free for the first time in a hundred years.
I am thinking about friending a North Korean. Facebook friending them. Actually, I think it would be a good idea if everyone in the world was ready to Facebook a North Korean citizen. These people are going to need a ton of help. Apparently they have only just that Michael Jackson is a cool singer, and they will be crushed when they find out he is no longer with us.
I do believe that social technologies, and the massive networks we have created with technology and our own human curiosity, will provide a route forward to the Korean people to join our world. They can leapfrog into the 21st century, unencumbered by, well, by anything. They will need some help, though, and as a human race, I am confident that we will be there to help.
So here’s to a peaceful transition to the new Korea. I am thinking late Spring, 2011. The world has changed, and it wants North Korea to join in too.