The Egyptian revolution has raised hopes of democracy in the region and beyond. But North Korea is a different story.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may have woken up on his 70th birthday with crossed brows rather than a smile.
February 16th actually could be the first of a two-year celebration since he is either 69 or 70-years-old depending on the calculator. Still, the 70th birthday is a very special one in Korea though his are always commemorated with lavish birthday gifts and festivities.
But this year, Kim has woken up to a mix of unhappy birthday presents no 70-year-old dictator would want to accept: South Korean headlines that continue to paint a bleak picture for his health and regime; uncertainty over U.S. food aid to the North; an unstable health; urgent need to fast-forward his son Jong-un’s grooming process; unsuccessful inter-Korean military talks ending with no rice aid; and a struggling economy.
Perhaps most concerning is waking up to the reality that yet another fellow dictator and long-time friend Hosni Mubarak has been toppled by the Egyptian people. Romania, Iraq, Tunisia and now Egypt. One by one, his comrades have fallen.
Kim might have even asked himself, “Could this be my fate one day?”
But his conscience may have immediately answered, “Never!” with another pound of the iron fist.
While the world could not escape the images of Egyptian protests and democracy taking wind in the Middle East, North Koreans were oblivious of the historic moment. State media naturally blacked out the Egyptian revolution, and instead claimed America’s latest headache is smartphones used by U.S. prison inmates to smuggle drugs and weapons.
The regime’s iron curtain has its pores and information reportedly disseminates from the growing popularity of banned South Korean dramas, those sneaking in and out of China, and the expanding number of smuggled mobile phones from China as well as increasing shipments of legitimate mobile phones serviced by Egypt’s Orascom Telecom.
As South Koreans watched Egyptians overthrow their 30-year dictator, the first thought in their minds was, “When will it be North Korea’s turn?” North Korean defectors watched with envy.
There has been news of unhappy North Koreans. Add that to doubts over Kim’s health and one could hope the scale would tip toward homegrown social instability and uproar.
The cruel reality, however, is that North Korea’s turn is unlikely to come any time soon. “Bottom-up” is not a concept that can easily be applied to the North. The fundamental constraint to any civilian protest is the sheer fact that the regime maintains a strict system of absolute power, oppression, monitoring, isolation and gulags.
The North Korean people do not have the power to assemble. Most do not have contact with the outside world. While North Koreans minus the elite are hungry and malnourished, they still worship their Dear Leader and are severely patriotic. Reports may be true that some members of the military and political crème de la crème are unhappy, but they will continue to bask in the glory and goodies of elite-hood as long as they remain loyal.
As grim as the current picture may be for Kim Jong-il, it also gives him more incentive to up the ante and strengthen internal solidarity.
Kim may see an opportune time to unleash more provocations when Seoul and Washington convene their annual Key Resolve/Foal Eagle military exercise on February 28th. Military officials say the drills will go beyond defeating a conventional attack, and will reportedly include responding to an all-out war and contingency scenarios such as the death of Kim Jong-il and a crisis during a transfer of power. The exercise may also involve a U.S. aircraft carrier while intensifying their training to search and destroy North Korean weapons of mass destruction.
Pyongyang believes the joint exercises are aimed at toppling the Kim regime, and it has often threatened grave consequences should the drills proceed. As has been the case in the past, the United Nations Command has informed the North of the upcoming exercise date explaining that they are defensive in nature.
The future course of the Korean peninsula is unclear. But what is clear is that Pyongyang will engage in more provocations given the right time and political incentive. What’s clear is that tensions must be reduced. What’s clear is that the international community still needs to feed information to the North Korean people. What’s clear is that a North Korea with nuclear weapons is destabilizing to the region and the world. What’s clear is that solving North Korea will shake the nuclear black market. What is clear is that active diplomacy must persist.