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.)
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.”
It’s important not to overestimate what is happening. In particular, don’t leap to the conclusion that the newly complaint-minded North Koreans are starting a broad political counter-revolution.
The internal security system has spies everywhere and, even if one can summon the guts to go against the regime, it still is all but impossible to organize an opposition movement without being caught and either executed by firing squad or consigned to the gulag with one’s whole family. In all the world, “North Korea is the most repressive regime,” Park observed.
“What keeps the regime in power," argued Hungarian scholar Balazs Szalontai, author of the book "Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era," in an email exchange, "is not so much the population's satisfaction with its performance or its unawareness of the country's problems but rather the people's acute awareness of the regime's capability and willingness to use brute force.” He added, “As Machiavelli said, ‘It is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.’"
But even if things haven’t reached the boiling point, Ishimaru said during the Tokyo presentation, in the long run political change is not out of the question in view of “the very hungry, very dissatisfied 20 million people” who are not part of the country’s elite.
In North Korea’s old socialist system, “people were given food in return for obeying orders,” Ishimaru said. The state-run economy including food distribution collapsed in the 1990s. Now, “because people are no longer receiving food they refuse to take orders.”
North Korean society has been undergoing “a tremendous transformation,” Ishimaru said. “The speed of change surpasses even that of China — not because of the leaders’ polices but because of a market economy that appeared from nowhere and continued to grow.” That market economy has made mere commodities out of formerly unknown digital communication devices that enable the new information flow.
Ishimaru’s correspondents have only to transport tiny digital information storage devices — camera chips or USB sticks — to the border several times a year (or as seldom as once a year if they live far inland) and turn them over to Asia Press staffers.
Periodic crackdowns on, for example, mobile phones and radios capable of receiving outside broadcasts require shifting tactics to keep the information flowing. But “unless the Kim Jong Il regime divorces itself from all digital media there’s no way to stop it,” Ishimaru said.
This year’s extraordinary series of North Korean provocations includes an alleged torpedoing in March, which sank a South Korean warship and killed 46 crew members, and then last month in quick succession the ostentatious unveiling of a new uranium-based nuclear development program and an artillery attack on a South Korean-held island that killed two civilians and two soldiers.
While North Korea’s leaders clearly hoped stirring up enmity abroad would provide a foil against which to develop domestic morale, a report by the Daily NK suggests that the effort is less than successful — especially with younger people who have grown up in the new, extra-legal market economy with the freer flow of information from abroad that it has brought.
On their way home from required attendance at indoctrination and cheerleading sessions that the regime has been hosting to build war spirit, “today’s students snort at such gatherings, unlike in our generation,” the publication quoted one of its sources as saying. The source added, “Can this kind of national appeal work on people who have been watching South [Korean] movies and learning how to make money and survive from their parents since they were kids?”
Bradley K. Martin is the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”