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Is Kim Jong-Il Fearful of an Uprising?

Jon Herskovitz of Reuters wrote on March 17 that “he [Kim Jong-Il] lacks a game-changing ace to play that would seriously rattle the international community or spook markets long used to his grandstanding. Unless he is prepared to sail dangerously close to provoking a suicidal war.” This analysis was prescient. Building nuclear weapons and threatening to sell them and the use of frightening rhetoric have already been used, so something new and even more dramatic would be needed to give North Korea the center stage. Attacking a South Korean vessel would suffice, as Kim Jong-Il knows the West would not be willing to start a major war in retaliation.

There is no organized opposition movement in North Korea like has been seen in Iran, but the population is becoming more aware of their problems and more angry at their government. The regime had an unprecedented crisis recently when they issued a new currency and banned the use of old bank notes and foreign currency. This resulted in shortages, starvation, and even expressing their anger, something the regime has never had to face before.

The outside world only saw a glimpse of the backlash, but it was so frightening to the regime that they reversed its stance on foreign currency and even apologized. This is a truly remarkable event considering the personality cult and unfathomable oppression in that country.

The government’s top finance chief was executed following the blunder.

The East-West Center has a new report showing that over half of the population is following foreign news outlets, weakening the information blockade that is most vital to the regime’s stability. A poll of refugees showed that large portions of the population now blame the regime for their economic crisis and view it as corrupt. Refugees say that now people are actually voicing their complaints, and there is a network of citizens helping get information out to refugees and defectors outside of the country through China. Cell phones are being smuggled into the country so activists can call and text news to websites.

This is very encouraging news. North Korea, however, does not have civil institutions that would allow the opposition to coordinate. Marcus Noland writes, “There are no trade unions such as Solidarity in Poland, no churches to play the role that the Roman Catholic Church did in the ‘people power’ revolution in the Philippines, and no forum of intellectuals such as the Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia.” Hwang Jang-yop, the highest ranking defector from North Korea, agrees that the regime will not fall internally unless the military switches sides, and there are no signs that is happening. He says that the West needs to begin “ideological warfare,” such as by utilizing refugees in South Korea.

The North Korean regime is not about to be overthrown, but the West can and should help create the conditions so that one day the opposition can accomplish this. Providing cell phones and funding the networks getting information in and out of the country is a good start. Instability will cause the regime to lash out aggressively, as it may just have with the sinking of the South Korean ship. However, such instability will inevitably grow and that scenario cannot be avoided. The West would be wise to speed up the process.