Every time there has been a protest or a bit of resistance by average North Korean citizens against some new policy or practice, some commentators were quick to predict that the regime in Pyongyang was on the verge of collapse. I am not one of that group; however, I do see that current dissents are indeed occurring in an environment that appears to be much more tolerant – circumstances are different. I will explain in a bit.
To begin, however, it is important to understand the backdrop against which current activities are taking place. There is a long and bloody history of protests and rebellions of various dimensions in North Korea that are often forgotten or ignored when discussing present day agitations.
RESISTANCE NOT NEW
Past disturbances in North Korea have ranged from merely strong vocal objections to violent uprisings resulting in many deaths. Some of the more noteworthy examples are briefly discussed below.
One of the earliest and most intense cases of resistance occurred during the Korean War when it was discovered that a group of North Koreans were actively fighting the Kim Il Sung regime. Known as the White Tigers, these guerrillas number perhaps as many as 22,000 when the U.S. supported them during the war. Their fate after the armistice is unknown – though it can be surmised that it wasn’t pleasant, based upon the treatment reported by repatriated American prisoners of war.
During the 1980s, there were a number of armed clashes between citizens and the military
During the 1980s, there were a number of armed clashes between citizens and the military. For example, conflicts occurred in Chongjin on the northern East Coast, around Sinuiju near the mouth of the Yalu River, in Musan in north central North Korea near the border with China, and even in penal Camp Number 12 near Onsong. These events resulted cumulatively in the deaths of several thousand North Korean farmers, laborers and political prisoners.
Even the military was not exempt from discontent. In the 1990s, several mutinies took place in which Army officers organized protests, formed resistance groups, or plotted to assassinate members of the Kim family. These incidents occurred in Pyongyang itself, Chongjin, Hamhung, Hanggon and Sinuiju. Additionally, other small scale civilian protests such as the distribution of anti-government flyers and the defacing or destruction of government property were noted. Looting of government factories and supply houses was also observed.
Another form of protest began in the 2000s when Christian church missionaries began establishing secret meeting places and developing an underground railroad by which defectors could escape. The West also began to hear reports that information smuggled into North Korea via forbidden cell phones, CDs and DVDs, and through contact with foreigners in China was having some effect, that discontent was growing. Corrupt government officials at the local level often turned a blind eye to North Koreans bringing in contraband goods and in some cases actually assisted defectors crossing the Yalu and Tumen Rivers into China. Those that were caught in these activities were punished, some severely, up to and including death.
More recently, such harsh reactions by the government seem to have moderated somewhat as citizens and merchants are more and more speaking their minds. Perhaps realizing that the newly emerging donju and the merchant class have become an integral part of the supply chain – and survival lifeline – in North Korea, authorities may have concluded that being too harsh is unwise. Another reason is that the protesters are also the sources of bribes – money upon which low-level officials depend in order to live better than their paltry wages would otherwise allow.
In July of last year, there was a “massive brawl” between security agents and vendors who were protesting the confiscation of their goods that were likely taken in lieu of bribes that were not forthcoming. And just last month, a South Korean government spokesperson announced – if the statement is to be trusted – that during the last 24 months, more than a dozen and a half senior North Korean government officials, party cadres and military officers had defected to the South.
Now we have news of complaints from average citizens and students who are understandably upset about the number of hours they are away from their normal pursuits as they are continually forced to work on government projects. That these criticisms and grievances are being voiced is significant, for in the past, such dissent was not well tolerated by the regime.
Add to this the reports that increasing numbers of workers are defecting from relatively cushy overseas jobs and one has to wonder, “Why now?” After all, those allowed to work in foreign countries have in the past been from the loyal Songbun class, cleared to go abroad only after extensive vetting, and have close family members that can be used as virtual hostages.
Since defection is anything but convenient, it seems rather obvious that any decision to defect, despite its disadvantages, is made because it is preferred over the status quo
The study of human psychology tells us than when people are faced with only two choices, neither of which is ideal, either the less undesirable option of the two is chosen, or the one that is more convenient at the moment of decision is picked. Since defection is anything but convenient, it seems rather obvious that any decision to defect, despite its disadvantages, is made because it is preferred over the status quo – which of course in this case includes returning eventually to North Korea.
This psychology applies to those still in North Korea as well. Imagine what must be in the minds of elites seeing that sanctions are probably starting to bite, that Kim Jong Un has no qualms about “permanent” purges, and that the regime has been isolated into a tight spot. It may well be that for some at the top, doubts are beginning to form regarding the continued existence of their personal status quos, leaving them with only a few options, none of them really ideal.
As for the youth of the elites – the so-called jangmadang generation – one recent news article claims that according to defectors, they have lost faith in the regime’s promises for a better future, and they have also become accustomed to shopping in the ever-growing markets. As a result, they are looking for changes to a more capitalistic society. Many apparently have been captivated by DVDs and videos of the South’s Hallyu – the Korean wave that has gone around the world.
Does all this mean that the collapse of Kim Jong Un’s regime or a coup d’état is imminent? Certainly those are within the universe of possibilities, although it is more likely that nothing like that is in the offing. Even so, recent events do indicate that some sort of change is afoot. Exactly how much and how fast change will occur is, for the present, unknowable. Nevertheless, one can always hope for the best – while preparing for the worst. What is most likely is that everyone will be caught off guard by sudden changes in the North.
Every time there has been a protest or a bit of resistance by average North Korean citizens against some new policy or practice, some commentators were quick to predict that the regime in Pyongyang was on the verge of collapse. I am not one of that group; however, I do see that current dissents are indeed occurring in an environment that appears to be much more tolerant – circumstances are
Robert E. McCoy is a retired U.S. Air Force Korean linguist and analyst/reporter who was stationed in Asia for more than fourteen years. He continues to follow developments in East Asia closely. Mr. McCoy’s book Tales You Wouldn’t Tell Your Mother is now out. He can be contacted via his website http://musingsbymccoy.com/ which also lists his previous essays and has personal vignettes on Asia (Tidbits) not published elsewhere.