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Yearning for a North Korean Spring?

 
 

With the death of Kim Jong-il comes a sliver of hope. Will the family franchise of famine and daredevil nuclear gamesmanship continue? Or, for the sake of its people, is there any chance of real change in North Korea?

In other words, does this emotional period of public mourning offer enough of an opening for a “North Korean Spring”? You can hope, but don’t count on it.

That the odds are against it shows just how terribly good a despot Kim Jong-il has been in his anti-democratic ways. His rule was all but complete, with few experiencing or knowing any other way but the North Korean way. That’s more important than you think.

You’re a member of the masses in North Korea, the hardcore 99 percent. The middle class has had the means and the luck to escape. The rest are just stuck. All you know is hardship and famine. It’s like being in a cult. You don’t know any better. It’s your “normal.” While you’re just happy to have a meal, Dear Leader can have such luxuries as a personal library of 20,000 foreign films at the ready. You don’t know that anyone with a Netflix account can have that. Then again, you don’t even have the means to Tweet how hungry you are. How are you supposed to start a revolution?

Indeed, the only way Kim has been able to keep his people under a rock has been to keep them under a rock, completely shrouded from modern life. Running water used to be the sign of advanced societies. But in the information age, it’s all about the flow of instant personal information. In the modern age, the best barometer for that is the ubiquitous mobile phone. Make that almost ubiquitous. In North Korea only 400,000 people in North Korea reportedly have mobile phones. That’s less than two percent of a population of 24 million. That should give you an idea of how North Korea works. If you’re an elite member of the regime, you get to experience modern life, not quite like Dear Late and Lamented Leader, but certainly more so than the North Korean 99 percent.

And as cell phones go, so go all the other gizmos that make the world “not the 1940s.” Getting an iPad for Christmas? Probably not in North Korea. Kim has his people so dammed up in an unnatural world where the internet is rare, and all the tools that promulgated the Arab Spring are out of some democratic fantasy. Leaks on how the rest of the world lives are kept to the minimum. Helps keep envy down.

In North Korea, modern life remains classified.

It’s not third world, it’s three and a half.

Still, the country is a major player in the modern world just the same. If only its people could eat nuclear weapons.

Last month, Fareed Zakaria, Time/CNN journalist and AALDEF’s Lunar New Year honoree next February 8th, noted how 200 North Koreans were stranded in Libya. They were doctors and nurses trained in North Korea sent to help the Gadhafi regime. And there were more in places like Tunisia and Egypt. But North Korea didn’t want them back. The government would rather they not return to let others in on the big little secret: there’s another life possible outside of Kim Jong-il’s fantasy world.

Fear may be the only way to keep the cult afloat. The iron hand will likely become stronger. But whose will it be? Kim’s successor son, Kim Jong-un? Will other regime members buttress up the young heir?

Or is this the opening for more talk of unification? Earlier this month, South Korea resumed sending shipments of nearly $6 million in medical aid to North Korea via UNICEF.

Beyond medicine and vaccines, UNICEF has estimated this year that there’s more than $20 million in food aid needed for North Korea in order to prevent “a full scale nutritional crisis, especially among children.”

That crisis is the lasting legacy of the despot. There’s really no reason for it to continue. With his death, there may be some in the country of 24 million, rebels at heart, who dare to be the heroes of a North Korean spring.