In late December 2017, an important gathering took place in the North Korean capital. The secretaries of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) cells met, in the presence of Kim Jong Un and other top dignitaries.
The Supreme Leader delivered a speech at the meeting, filled with the usual dry and ossified North Korean idioms, but its content left no doubt: Kim Jong Un and his advisors are seriously worried about the spread of information about the outside world which continues within North Korea.
In the speech, the leader condemned the existence of “non-socialist phenomena” and “ideological poison” being spread by “American imperialists and enemy forces” aimed at undermining socialism.
Once upon a time, in the 1940s, North Korea was the most industrially developed country in continental East Asia, but now it is now lagging well behind all its neighbors.
This fact alone is potentially destabilizing. Of special significance is the existence of “another Korea”: the South appears fabulously rich and free by the standards of the average North Korean.
There is little surprise, then, that for decades the North Korean state has gone to extreme lengths to keep its commoners as isolated from outside information as possible, believing they could not learn how poor and controlled their lives are by the standards of the modern world.
However, the past two decades have seen information about the outside world begin to filter inside the once safely-sealed nation. DPRK leaders are unlucky: their ultimate goal is self-isolation, but they operate in an era when the explosive growth of IT technologies is making such isolation difficult to sustain.
The North Korean state has gone to extreme lengths to keep its commoners as isolated from outside information
Nonetheless, it is telling how much effort and resources the North Korean government spends on policies whose aim is to counter information infiltration, and recent speeches at the WPK secretaries’ conference once again reminded us that information penetration is one of the major concerns of the North Korean elite.
CHANGE FROM WITHOUT
So what does this mean for us outsiders who have an interest in changing the nature of the North Korean state?
For the majority of people who support the information dissemination policy – be it radio or TV broadcasts, production of digital content, spreading leaflets – the major goal is quite clear, if sometimes politely understated or buried in euphemisms.
Most of these people assume that the North Korean people will become restive if they eventually realize how impoverished and regimented their lives are.
It is assumed and quietly expected that in due time the spread of information will bring about regime collapse. Experiences of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union – highly relevant – are often cited.
Ten years ago, I also supported such a view. In the days of famine and disaster, one had good reason to see a possible North Korean revolution and regime collapse as the most desirable outcome. However, things have changed significantly since then.
The list of the relevant changes is long, but they all work in the same direction: as time goes by, the prospect of regime collapse in North Korea looks less and less appealing.
REFORM IN THE WORKS
In recent years the regime has shown its ability and a desire to change. Kim Jong Un’s reforms are working and, as a result, the living standards of the North Korean population are improving.
As time goes by, the prospect of regime collapse in North Korea looks less and less appealing
The events of the Arab Spring, too, as well as subsequent changes in the international system, make one doubt that the international community will be willing to assist northern Korea in the difficult years and decades which will follow this hypothetical regime collapse.
One is even more skeptical about outside assistance if one considers the trends in the international politics after 2008: increasing friction and rivalry between great powers, the rise of populism and isolationism, as well as progressing donor fatigue and disillusionment about aid to the victims of the political and economic disasters.
Around 2000, there were reasons to believe that a new Marshall plan might be implemented if what is now North Korea eventually went belly-up. Now such expectations appear to be unfounded.
In all probability, the Koreans will be left alone to face the huge social problems and mammoth cost of unification.
In addition, the emergence of a fully developed nuclear potential in the DPRK means that a crisis could easily bring a massive and bloody international confrontation. If Pyongyang is cornered, its leaders now have many more ways to teach the world a lesson and go out with a bang, not a whimper – and this bang could be nuclear and noisy.
CHANGE IS GONNA COME
All this and other factors make many skeptical about the desirability of regime collapse in North Korea.
But even we counter-revolutionary skeptics and evolutionists should realize: this change of our priorities does not mean that we should cease information dissemination efforts.
As long as our goal remains the same, to change the nature of the North Korean government, making it less murderous domestically and less dangerous internationally, information dissemination campaigns remain an extremely important tool which cannot be discarded.
Currently, the best available option – at least if judged from the point of view of those who live on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity – is to encourage the gradual evolution of the North Korean state, more or less along the same lines that China has followed in the past four decades.
This evolution has already begun and the ideal outcome will be the emergence of a North Korean “developmental dictatorship,” more or less akin to China under Deng Xiaoping or even South Korea under Park Chung-hee.
Such a regime will remain brutal and repressive, and it will keep its nuclear weapons. But for the average North Korean life under such a regime will be immeasurably better than life under Kim Il Sung, let alone the famine conditions of Kim Jong Il era (if in doubt ask the average Chinese citizen to compare life under Mao with life under Xi).
Such a regime will also be significantly less inclined to engage in dangerous international behavior.
Of course, the best way to encourage such a transformation is change from above – as it happened in China or Vietnam, it may happen under Kim Jong Un.
For those who want a different North Korea, it should be clear that pressure must be maintained
IMPETUS FOR REFORM
There is one simple question which is often overlooked. Why did the North Korean leadership, after decades of delay, finally decide to implement changes?
The answer is simple: Kim Jong Un and the people around him want to stay in power for decades to come. In order to do so, they need to keep their economy growing, and they understand well that without market-oriented reforms – the only game in town – this goal is not going to be achieved.
But why do they believe that the absence of reforms will be politically dangerous? Above all, because they understand that without them, the North Korean economy will lag more and more behind the economies of its neighbors, and the knowledge of this ever-growing lag will make the populace increasingly restive.
North Korean decision-makers are implementing reforms, above all, because they understand that without them they are under political threat, created by the steady spread of the knowledge about life beyond the country’s borders.
Information dissemination is an equally powerful tool for promoting evolution
This is why the elite wants to seal the borders once again: if the North Koreans are isolated from the dangerous knowledge, they will become less demanding, so there will be less need for difficult and potentially dangerous economic and political reforms.
The Pyongyang elite would be happy to decrease the pressure from below. However, for those who want a different North Korea, it should be clear that this pressure must be maintained.
The North Korean decision-makers are grudgingly moving now, and generally they are moving in the right direction, but this is happening largely because they feel the earth begin to shake under their feet – this is good, the earth should be kept shaking to make sure they would keep moving.
EVOLUTION, NOT REVOLUTION
This means that information dissemination efforts should not be seen as merely a tool for bringing a revolution, which is, indeed, less desirable now than, say, fifteen or twenty years ago.
Information dissemination is an equally powerful tool for promoting evolution and gradual, beneficial change.
This pressure must be maintained
At the end of the day, Chinese reforms began because in the late 1970s the Beijing elite came to realize that contrary to the earlier hopes of the Communist idealists, the proverbial “red cat” was not particularly good at catching mice.
However, the revolutionaries-turned-bureaucrats of the 1970s arrived at such a conclusion because they had access to outside information, and were well aware how many more mice were being caught by the-then new market-driven developmental dictatorships of South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.
Of course, it is understandable that the North Korean authorities are going to do what they can to control, diminish or even stop information dissemination. Nobody wants to be under pressure.
This doesn’t mean that we should stop efforts to bring more and more information, of all kinds, within the reach of North Koreans, the more of whom learn about the outside world, the better.
This knowledge will make them press the government, quietly but persistently demanding more changes. This knowledge also will show the decision-makers the only way to follow is the only model which works.
At the end of the day, information dissemination is not necessarily an instrument for bringing revolutionary destruction – it might be also an equally good instrument for promoting evolutionary change.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: CPC_4154 by nknews_hq on 2016-10-07 11:23:54