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North Korea: grumblings of dissent

Analysis: How likely is a broad political counter-revolution?

A North Korean soldier looks at a South Korean soldier at the demilitarized zone of Panmunjom, South Korea, on Dec. 8, 2010. (Chung Sung Jun/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — As top U.S. military officers met today with South Korean officials over how best to respond to future provocations from the North, the question remained: How could North Korea, a country of only 22 million people, inspire terror in the hearts of enemies as powerful as the Americans?

Part of the answer, of course, is that the little country has adopted militarism as high policy. Even when its people starve, budget priority goes to building and buying weaponry and concealing it underground to enforce a porcupine strategy. Pyongyang tells Americans and South Koreans, in essence, “You can’t attack us, or even undertake a limited military retaliation when we attack you, because we’ll hurt you worse than you can hurt us.”

The other big part of the answer always used to be the presumed fighting spirit of a people brainwashed to overlook their leaders’ failings, focusing all their anger and hatred on the enemy. Knowing that the people — and especially the military — remained fiercely loyal, no matter how outrageous the demands placed upon them, gave further pause to any outsider considering a military response to provocations.

Lately that second part of the answer has become less of a given — a development that almost certainly worries Kim Jong Il as well as his 20-something son and designated heir Kim Jong Un and assorted brain-trusters, enforcers and hangers-on.

These days quite a few North Koreans manage to summon the guts to express open contempt for the authorities, whom they increasingly despise as little better than bribe-extorting hindrances to daily life. To take one example, a video clip shows a woman directing loud verbal abuse at a policeman who has stopped her. She concludes by screaming, as she leaves the scene, “That cop is an idiot!”

Even the ruling Kims, all but deified by official personality cults, are no longer immune to disrespect. An old children’s song, “Three Bears,” reportedly has been modified on the schoolground to dis the dynasty’s late founder, Kim Il Sung, and his two living heirs. “Grandpa Bear is fat, Papa Bear is fat, too, and Baby Bear is a doofus,” the new lyrics read.

Especially after a central government-mandated currency realignment last December in which huge numbers of North Koreans saw most of their savings become valueless, “the people are very upset,” according to a journalist who goes by the pseudonym Kim Dong Chol and who clandestinely shot that footage of the woman and the policeman, which was shown during a recent presentation at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo. “Everyone says if something like that happened again they would lose any trust in their country, perhaps even rebel.”

“The authorities do not receive the amount of respect and fear as in the past,” Kim Dong Chol said in an on-camera interview with his features obscured. “There is an enormous change in North Korea.”

Even more startling than the behavior of ordinary citizens who stand up to the authorities is the transformation of Kim Dong Chol and numbers of others like him into, in essence, guerrilla providers of news: They have gone underground and begun acting secretly in ways that someday could help bring down leaders in whom the prospect of free information flow inspires more fear than bullets and bombs.

Kim works clandestinely for the Japanese magazine Rimjingang, whose editor, Jiro Ishimaru, met him outside North Korea, realized in Ishimaru's words that he possessed a “burning desire to convey what’s happening in North Korea,” trained him as a journalist and sent him back with a miniature video camera to record scenes and conversations of daily life.

Ishimaru’s Osaka-based Asia Press has just published a book of articles based on reporting by Kim and other underground North Korean reporters, translated into English. (Disclosure: This writer did some copy-editing of the book, but anyone interested can and should buy it without fear of enriching me, since I don’t get any royalties.)

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Meanwhile, mainly Seoul-based non-governmental news organizations including the web-based Daily NK, a group of defector intellectuals called North Korean Intellectual Solidarity and several radio broadcasters have managed to develop news sources inside North Korea and keep in touch with them, often by mobile phone. All are partly staffed by defectors.

Seven years ago, NK Net (of which Daily NK is an affiliate) began gearing up to develop its internal reporting in North Korea. Before then, only governments had clandestine sources inside North Korea, said the international coordinator for NK Net, Park Jin Keol, in an interview at his Seoul office. What has been achieved since then represents “a huge difference,” he said.

Park said those organizations’ news sources, like Ishimaru’s underground citizen journalists, risk their lives and those of their families by helping to extract from the country — and send back in, via the radio broadcasts — word of what’s happening internally.

“Our top priority is to protect our sources,” Park said, explaining that “there are some attempts by North Korean spy agencies to hack our computers.”