Glimmers of Resistance in North Korea

Introducing the Rockland County Times New Column “Everywhere in Chains” by Adam Lucente — recounting struggles for freedom around the world 

BY ADAM LUCENTE
PHOTOS BY DEREK KRAVITZ

nk1North Korea isn’t too popular stateside these days. The much publicized, alleged cyber attack against Sony in response to ‘The Interview’ by the East Asian state has outraged many. As if the reports of widespread human rights abuses, nuclear threats and support for international terrorism weren’t doing enough for their reputation. The regime in Pyongyang seems confident as ever these days. Any resistance to the state thus faces an uphill battle, but resistance does exist inside the hereditary dictatorship.

Opposition takes a few different forms in North Korea. According to Douglas H. Paal, Director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program, “there are refugees operating networks” that “try to create channels of communication,” through the use of Chinese cell towers, for example. He further notes that “people bring in movies to expose the gap of what life is like outside of North Korea.”

Defectors working to democratize North Korea is nothing new. North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, for example, wants to “see a North Korea that is free,” and has been around for over six years, with a membership partially comprised of North Korean political refugees now in South Korea. Paal points to the preponderance of other NGOs working to democratize the country, both in South Korea like NKIS and elsewhere.

nk2Opposition to Kim Jong-un from within the country’s political elite merits discussion as well. Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute says “There have been internal, factional jockeys for power” in recent years. Paal agrees, saying that in recent years “We did see an internal dispute within the ruling family.”

“It is the most totalitarian state in the world today,” claims Eberstadt. And this quote explains the state’s response to the aforementioned resistance, which proves effective. South Korean media corroborates the notion that North Korea suppresses opposition. The Chosun Ilbo reported earlier this year that “hundreds of households in Pyongyang have been sent into internal exile in remote provinces” in the last two years. This indicates a vigorous squashing of opposition, given that entire families are moved when one person leaves. The paper also points out the increasing number of defectors in the same time frame.

Unlike the past, disagreements from those close to the leader have resulted in repression. The execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle in late 2013 created much speculation about the means of his death, but also notably broke a longstanding tradition in the hermit nation’s elite: “The unspoken rule was all the loyals stay safe,” says Eberstadt, referring to the belief that those close to the leader needed not worry about their safety. This execution destroyed faith in this principle, and means “everyone at the top has to think exit strategy more than in the past,” according to Eberstadt.

It is therefore no surprise that opposition is not stronger in North Korea. Both Paal and Eberstadt agree that there have been little open, large-scale acts of defiance against the state. “The police state is very effective,” concludes Paal.

The fact that there is opposition against such odds offers hope for those seeking the fall of the regime in Pyongyang, though. And the country has begun to open up recently. Paal notes that “cell phones are becoming more available.” Such technology was of course an important tool for the protestors of the Arab Spring. In terms of the economy, where the past saw great famine, “In recent years, the economy has not been in a downslide,” in Eberstadt’s view. Paal agrees, citing observations of those entering the country: “People who get in and out say there is improving quality of life for people in big cities.”

If or when the regime falls is clearly a matter of speculation. Paal says that its fall “is more likely to come from the internal problems of the regime” than any foreign intervention. He also points out that sanctions against North Korea are not that strong, due to Russia and China’s opposition in the United Nations. Eberstadt is pessimistic, saying “There’s no reason to believe the regime’s control over the party and military is any less strong than his dad’s,” referring to the late Kim Jong-Il.

Seemingly strong authoritarian states have collapsed before, however. Eberstadt says “Totalitarian regimes are strong until they are not.” On Tuesday North Korea was without Internet, leading to speculation of a counter cyber attack by the United States. Their vulnerability to such responses, coupled with historical precedent and small but consistent opposition, indicate that the state may not be as strong as it seems in pictures.