North Koreans unaffected by Mid East protests

By Daniele Pestilli on February 24, 2011
Egypt protests - sitting line of men. By monasosh

Although uprisings have been taking place throughout the Middle East, North Korea shows no sign of being affected by the wave of organized resistance to repression, Yonhap News Agency reported.

There was speculation that news of the mass uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere had reached the Korean peninsula and could potentially trigger protest on behalf of the North Korean population.

North Koreans have been repressed by an incompetent authoritarian regime since the country was divided along the 38th parallel following the 1950-1953 Korean War under their first leader Kim Il-sung.

South Koreans had tried to overthrow their authoritarian regime in the late 1970s, most notably with the Pu-Ma struggle wherein 50,000 people gathered in front of the city hall to protest President Park Chung-hee’s Yushin Constitution which granted him legal dictatorship over the country. Park was assassinated in 1979. In 1980, the citizens of South Korea rose again in the Gwangju Democratization Movement to combat President Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship and to put an end to the martial law, as well as to fight for democratization, minimum wage demands and freedom of press. The Gwangju Movement was forcibly put down by the South Korean army, a maneuver assisted by Roh Tae-woo, the South Korean president from 1988 to 1993.

Sporadic, rare small-scale demonstrations over economic woes and food shortages have broken out in North Korea but they do not appear to be related to the situation in the Middle East since the communist regime strictly controls the flow of information, which is in the hands of a select elite. Nevertheless, some North Koreans have illegal access to outside information via cell phones and South Korean news channels, Radio Free Asia reported. Although the scopic control of information in the North is great, it is not absolutely pervasive.

The North Korean government is expected to take measures that will prevent the Middle East uprisings from affecting the Hermit Kingdom’s populace of 24 million, South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said.

Hosni Mubarak and Kim Jong-il have friendly relations as Egypt’s Orascom Telecom company owns a large portion of North Korea’s only 3G cellular network. An article from Global Voices indicates that the CEO of the company met and had dinner with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on January 26, the day after the upheaval in Egypt.

The likelihood of a revolution in North Korea based on the Middle Eastern model is meager, as all efforts are probably being made to conceal this information from the populace. Furthermore, North Koreans have other severe problems to worry about, such as chronic food shortages which have worsened since Seoul's 2010 decision to end the “sunshine policy" and Pyongyang's 2009 currency reform - a fiasco which North Korean refugees indicated was undertaken in the name of Kim Jong-un and which has thus marred his succession prospects.