North Korea Faces Bleak Reform Prospects

The Kim regime is bent on maintaining its grip on power, making reforms difficult.
An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
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An undated photo released Oct. 18, 2011, shows Kim Jong-il (center L), accompanied by his son Kim Jong-un (center R), inspecting a factory in South Hamgyong province.
An undated photo released Oct. 18, 2011, shows Kim Jong-il (center L), accompanied by his son Kim Jong-un (center R), inspecting a factory in South Hamgyong province.

Few North Koreans would have watched the bloody television images of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi being taunted and assaulted by angry captors before he was shot dead on Thursday.

In a nation where reception of foreign TV and radio programs is illegal, even if they had viewed the images, the North Koreans would not have dared to flock the streets to cheer the latest Arab Spring wave of popular uprisings or to demand the removal of their own brutal dictator Kim Jong-il.

North Korea remains the most repressive nation in the world and, experts say, the hermit kingdom is unlikely to shed its infamous title anytime soon.

Any expectations of Arab Spring-like changes in the reclusive, nuclear-armed and tightly-ruled nation remain slim, despite a proliferation of cellphones and personal computers—technology that in normal societies can drive revolts.

More than three years after being hit by a stroke, Kim is preoccupied with efforts to ensure regime survival, hastening the process of installing his third son, Kim Jong-un, as successor.

Least on his mind is opening up his impoverished country, which borders rapidly growing economies China and South Korea.

In fact, the defiant Kim is further tightening controls on his people while keeping his nuclear weapons arsenal intact. He is even savagely exploiting hunger in the country to ensure loyalty, authority, and regime survival, some groups say.

"I think the process of change in North Korea remains very difficult," said Christopher Hill, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian affairs, in an interview with RFA.

"The regime, far more than being concerned about the welfare of its citizens, is concerned about the welfare of its own survival," said Hill, once the U.S. point man for negotiating with North Korea on ending its illicit nuclear program.

Hill, who has accused Pyongyang of lying to him about its uranium enrichment capability, also pours cold water on any optimism over the prospect of restarting multilateral talks—after a nearly three-year hiatus—aimed at dismantling the Stalinist regime's nuclear weapons arsenal.

U.S. officials will hold a second round of talks with North Korea in Geneva next week to discuss ways to restart the six-party nuclear negotiations, which also include China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia.

"I think if there is such a sense of optimism, it is exaggerated," Hill said. "I think there is support in some quarters for dialogue but there is a very realistic assessment of the capacity of North Korea to change course in the short run."

Nipped in the bud

Hill and other experts believe that the tentacles of Kim's powerful security apparatus extend so far across the impoverished society that any sign of change is easily detected and nipped in the bud.

North Korea is tightly sealed off from the Internet and foreign news. There is no social media or mainstream media and the system of government that Kim has set up really prevents the flourishing of any kind of democracy movement.

So, there is just not a spark to create any kind of even small flame of democratic change."
-- Bruce Klingner

Unlike Eastern Europe, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is no opposition movement in North Korea," said Bruce Klingner, a Northeast Asia expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

"There is no revered dissident figure like Lech Wałęsa [in Poland] or Vaclav Havel [in former Czechoslovakia, who led the revolts there]. There is also no reputable or viable government-in-exile," he told RFA.
In addition, in North Korea, there is not even anyone within the government that people could look to as a reformer or alternative power base, Klingner said.
"So, there is just not a spark to create any kind of even small flame of democratic change."

Klingner, a former chief of the CIA's Korea branch, also highlighted how Pyongyang uses its isolationist policy to manage its propaganda campaign and keep close tabs on both the elite and and the poor.

"Those who have the least and are the most repressed are the lower social strata, they have the least access to the outside world. So, they either believe the propaganda because they have no other news or they may question the government but feel, 'What can one poor farmer do, what can a poor citizen do?'"

"The folks higher up in the system would have more access to the outside world, but they also have the most they can maintain in the current system. So, compared with the outside world, they may still have poor conditions but by North Korean standards, they are actually well off."

Klingner pointed out that North Korean diplomats posted overseas always have to leave a family member behind "as a hostage."

"So, that inhibits even defectors who obviously would have the most exposure to outside information from defecting."


Despite facing strict restrictions and harsh punishments, North Koreans still take risks by illegally listening to foreign radio broadcasts and using smuggled Chinese cellphones, which work inside areas of North Korea close to the Chinese border, to exchange information with outsiders.

A group of North Korean defectors recently told Japanese officials that they listened to radio while hiding under bedding in the middle of the night when the children were asleep, Japanese media reported.

Some in a group of nine defectors from North Korea who were rescued off Japan on Sept. 13 had used a short-wave radio and a cell phone to get information while preparing to defect, the reports said.

The legal cellphone market is also expanding.

Koryolink, North Korea’s only 3G network operator, added a record number of cellphone subscribers in the second quarter of 2011 to nearly 670,000 subscribers and, reports say, it has set an unofficial target of 1 million users by the end of the year.

Still, North Korea's economy continues to languish in negative growth over the last five years compounded by chronic food shortages. The United Nations estimated in March that more than 6 million North Koreans urgently needed food aid.

But Pyongyang's requests for aid have gone mostly unanswered by foreign donor nations which suspect the Kim leadership of siphoning off rice and other food aid to feed its million-strong army or stockpiling in the event of further, tightened sanctions by the international community.

"Starving people cannot even think of a massive revolt, like the 'Arab Spring,'" The Korea Times, a South Korean newspaper, said in an editorial this week, as it pushed Seoul to provide aid to the North Koreans.

This "might give them some energy—and motivation," the paper said.

The international community is divided on how to bring about reforms in North Korea.

Foreign government and human rights groups often quarrel over which should be given top priority—human rights, aid, or ridding the regime of its nuclear weapons.

Bottom spot

North Korea and Burma were the only two Asian nations ranked "Worst of the Worst" among 47 countries ranked "not free" in the Freedom in the World 2011 report published by U.S.-based Freedom House this year.

With the beginning of reforms in Burma in recent months under the new nominally civilian government, North Korea is highly likely to be declared the worst rights record holder in the 2012 report.

"I don't want to be too optimistic but it is clear so far that there will be some improvements in the scores for Burma in the next report to be released in January 2012," said Karin Karlekar, project director of Freedom House's freedom of the press index.

"Even if the scores for Burma do not change, it is ranked better than North Korea, which will be in the bottom position."

There are few hopes that Kim's son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, will relax some of the controls if he comes to power.

As the regime's priority is to maintain its grip on power, "it limits options because reform would carry with it risk," said Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"At the same time, it's clear that the current situation as it exists in North Korea cannot be sustained. So any next-generation leader in North Korea is likely to have to face that contradiction squarely," he said.

North Korea's strategy of using its nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip with the international community is also becoming ineffective.

"Nobody accepts that they should be a nuclear power and nobody will accept that they should be a nuclear power and so they will continue to find that they are one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world and the prospects for change in this regard are very dim indeed," former senior U.S. diplomat Hill said.





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