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Published on July 24th, 2013 | by Liam Anderson
Image © Oren neu dag 2005


Changing North Korea: Fear, Isolation and the Lack of Democratic Experience

Political change is said to be best derived from inside a country, but there are serious obstacles to this in isolated, oppressive North Korea. The diplomatic and geopolitical difficulty of externally imposed regime change, particularly due to proximity with China, along with moral questions, seemingly makes it a distant prospect. Equally, the dangers of a rapid decline of the regime and associated security apparatus are multiple and serious; an abundance of weaponry, particularly large-scale weapons such as nuclear arms, have the potential for mass instability, unpredictable and serious violence, and dangerous black market supplies within the country and regionally. Stability would thus be a very desirable feature of political change. It is, though, certainly a massive challenge, especially given the lack of domestic opposition and the lack of space for this to realistically develop under longstanding regime repression. Internal reforms would undoubtedly need international support, as has happened to some extent in Myanmar over recent years. Indeed, an international focus on the lack of human rights and civil freedoms could support measures which gradually give rise to coherent domestic movements.

However, it could be questioned how practical this is in the North Korean context. It has the largest military size relative to population in the world, many thousands imprisoned in terrible conditions, and the use of extremely repressive methods such as public execution. The repeated exposure of the general population to autocratic, institutionalized violent repression, and the lack of access to information about the outside world, may leave it difficult for many to even imagine other possible systems or how to achieve them.

Compared to Myanmar, for example, itself long a military autocracy now making a measure of reform, North Korea has not had a similar brief relatively democratic experience since independence from Japan that Myanmar had following independence from Britain. Combined with a lack of any nascent or successful movements such as that headed by the famous Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, such an experience, which could act as a ‘democratic reference point’, is thus missing from the national memory.

The high level of institutionalized control across North Korea’s population and territory has very thoroughly permeated all aspects of life, even when compared to other totalitarian regimes, which have not enjoyed such a complete, tight, gripping control. Afewerki’s Eritrea, for example, has faced dissent within the country and especially from an active diaspora, along with insurgencies allegedly supported by Ethiopia; Myanmar has experienced several longstanding ethno-regional movements and significant political dissent.

These barriers certainly appear to make the potential for organized political opposition limited, but nevertheless there is surely no reason to assume that North Koreans would not, given the opportunity, make moves towards change. Penetrating this forcibly closed mentality is essential, to erode the regime’s ‘control of thought’; this could be assisted by improving access to information of the outside world to North Koreans, via radio for example, and potentially giving a recognizable face to democratic opposition, and so a symbol and rallying point, from among the worldwide ‘defector’ population.

Opening up the regime could be hugely beneficial, potentially with a more neutrally-toned international engagement rather than one heavily phrased in more confrontational terms of sanctions; the EU, comparatively more neutral than other actors such as the USA or South Korea, could play an important role in such a shift. This could aim to lessen its isolation and thus reduce both its real paranoia and its ability to use xenophobic rhetoric to attempt to justify itself domestically. This would be even more powerful if coupled with improved access to information for North Korean citizens, and thus an ability to observe that the regime could choose to reduce its isolation and improve international relations. Given the highly centralized power structure in the politico-military ranks, it would also certainly be beneficial to try to find any persons within this elite who may show sympathies for calls to at least improve citizens’ basic standard of living, listen to grievances, and reduce the totalitarian permeation into all spheres of life. If such political space were created, perhaps North Koreans could find their Aung San Suu Kyi.

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About the Author

Liam Anderson

Liam holds a Master's degree in International Affairs: International Security from Sciences Po. His interests include post-conflict stability, state development, and group identity.

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