Since the beginning of North Korean history, a significant portion of Korea watchers have been waiting patiently for a revolution to happen in Pyongyang.
The number of people making predictions has increased or decreased according to the changing political landscape: in the early 1990s, for example, it was a view held by a majority that North Korea was ripe for a massive, perhaps violent, overthrow of the seemingly anachronistic and irrational regime.
However, as we all know, revolution has yet to come. Does this mean it will never happen? And, if conceivable, what are the chances of such a revolution happening now or in the immediate future?
Predicting the future is a rather risky business, but we still do it all the same. In regards to a possible (or impossible) North Korean revolution, one may look to the experiences and observations of historians and sociologists who have studied worldwide revolutions.
Among these experts, one must make special reference to James DeFronzo, whose book, “Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements”, has gone through five editions, and is widely regarded as a modern classic and one of the best available studies of modern revolutionary phenomena.
In his seminal work, James DeFronzo emphasizes five factors which he believes are indicative of whether a society is ripe for revolutionary upheaval. Without taking DeFronzo’s estimations word-for-word (everything must be taken with a grain of salt in humanities and social sciences) it still makes sense to examine the situation in modern-day North Korea and check to which extent it meets DeFronzo’s five conditions for a revolutionary outbreak.
Condition One: Mass frustration resulting in popular uprisings among urban or rural populations: A large proportion of a society’s population becomes extremely discontented, which leads to mass-participation protests and rebellions against state authority.
About a decade ago there were, indeed, some signs that North Korean society briefly conformed to this description above. From 2004 to 2009, a number of small-scale riots occurred throughout the country.
In most cases, these small-scale uprisings were protests against what was perceived as unfair crackdowns on market activity. It’s no coincidence that these uprisings occurred at a time when Kim Jong Il’s government attempted a massive crackdown on such activity.
However, the past seven or eight years have been remarkably quiet. There have been no reported incidences of riots. This probably reflects a softening posture from Pyongyang over market activity. After the failed attempt to overhaul the country’s currency turned into a complete disaster in 2009, the government has left free market activity alone.
It is noteworthy that social discontent in North Korea, when it existed at all, was closely connected to emerging private markets. Vendors at such places are relatively free of the Orwellian surveillance that state factory workers endure, and have much greater space in which to organize than the average North Korean. They also tend to be more open-minded and receptive to alternative views.
From 2004 to 2009, a number of small-scale riots occurred throughout the country
And under Kim Jong Un these people have enjoyed arguably the best time of their lives. They are free to make money with little harassment from police (so long as they don’t forget to pay the necessary bribes) and can fully take advantage of recent increases in consumer choice and variety. This potentially troublesome source of discontent seems happy – for the time being, at least.
Condition Two: Dissident elite political movements: Divisions among elites (groups that have access to wealth or power of various types or are highly educated and possess important technical or managerial skills) pit some elite members against the existing government.
It’s difficult to ascertain what exactly North Koreans discuss in the privacy of their own homes. It seems, however, that the gradual spread of information about the outside world is indeed strong enough to provoke some discontent, or at the very least, generate colorful and risky conversations.
Whether this leads to the emergence of a critical attitude to the state, however, is not a foregone conclusion. Particularly among the well-connected and moneyed elite, this does not seem to be the case. North Korea is not a country where professors submit opinion pieces to opposition-minded newspapers, or where prominent surgeons attend reading groups with suspiciously pro-liberal orientations.
The efficiency and omnipresence of the state surveillance system, combined with the brutality of the police, means that North Koreans know very well what should and should not be said in public. Dissenters, even if they exist, remain silent and do not interact.
Social discontent in North Korea, when it existed at all, was closely connected to the emerging private markets
Condition Three: Unifying motivations: Powerful motivations for revolution cut across major classes and unify the majority of a society’s population behind the goal of revolution.
For a change, it seems that ‘unifying motivations’, or at least conditions from which such motivations may emerge, have sprouted up in North Korea. There is significant and growing awareness of how well China and, especially, South Korea are doing.
Further, North Koreans are beginning to believe they should themselves enjoy a lifestyle roughly comparable to that depicted in South Korean movies and TV dramas smuggled inside the country.
These expectations are seemingly shared across social strata and geography, and thus can be described as unifying. In this regard, the North is surprisingly similar to East Germany of the 1970s.
There, most people understood that the system was not working properly, and that there was a country right next door of the same ethnicity that enjoyed far higher levels of prosperity, material wealth, and individual freedom. As we know, this understanding was the decisive force behind the East German revolution and subsequent German unification.
Condition Four: A severe political crisis paralyzing the administrative and coercive capabilities of the state […] The crisis, which may be caused by a catastrophic defeat in war, a natural disaster, an economic depression, or the loss of critical economic or military support from other nations, or by any combination of these factors, may deplete the state of loyal personnel, legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and other resources.
From what we have seen, there is no such paralyzing crisis in North Korea. The state functions in full accordance with the plans and decisions of its top leaders. Kim Jong Un’s recent high-profile purges have demonstrated that the government is still very capable of locating and punishing even a hint of dangerous or subversive ideas.
Dissenters, even if they exist, remain silent and do not interact
The remarkable success of North Korea’s nuclear scientists and engineers confirms as well that, at least for the time being, North Korea remains well capable of directing and managing sophisticated activities that require the vast coordination of resources.
The Arduous March of the 1990s remains fresh in people’s minds, but is increasingly understood as having been the result of decisions made in the past, for which the current government deserves no blame.
Condition Five: A permissive or tolerant world context
In this regard, Kim Jong Un can see himself as a lucky dictator. Just a few decades ago, Kim would have to navigate around a number of powerful outside forces working to take his regime down.
This is not the case anymore. Beijing and Moscow are status quo powers; they do not want regime change that would lead to a unified Korean peninsula under Southern control. Both, too, understand this is the only realistic unification scenario. They are afraid of regime instability, and worry that a crisis on the Korean peninsula would trigger a war they do not need.
The South Korean public is becoming increasingly skeptical of unification. They suspect, largely accurately, that such an endeavor would result in massive taxation, social disorder, and a substantive decrease in standards of living.
The U.S., on the other hand, almost certainly supports a collapse scenario, but still prefers a soft approach in the strategically vital East Asian region.
As we have seen, of the five conditions DeFronzo believes to be important for regime collapse, only one seemingly exists in North Korea. This suggests that Kim Jong Un and his administration are stable for now. Things do change, however, and even a minor shift may have wide-reaching consequences.
For example, a massive economic or political crisis could very well happen in North Korea. Popular sentiments are also bound to change, often in surprising and unpredictable ways. Lastly, such changes are not always generated from outside – especially when we are talking about such a closed, monitored society.
It seems in the long run that a North Korean revolution is not impossible. In the short term, it seems however, the application of DeFronzo’s conditions confirms what the majority of North Korean watchers have known for some time: for the time being, the country is stable, and an outbreak of popular uprising is unlikely. In the long run, only time will tell.
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