By Henrique Schneider
The Arab Spring, a timid opening of Myanmar (Burma), some embryonic steps taken by Cuba: in 2011 some hopes were raised. Many autocratic countries saw the green shoots of democratization or at least of diminishing despotism. After Kim Jong-il’s death, many (Western) experts devoted their thinking to the question: will there be political reform in North Korea?
A silver lining
Surely, there are some factors that contribute to a positive answer. It is safe to assume that the regime does not want any opening, so the hope rests on more and more information pouring into the country. With more knowledge about the world, the urge for freedom would captivate the people ― goes the rationale. How is information to enter the country?
A stroll through the rudimentary markets of Pyongyang can be revealing. Those who do not rely on a barter system trade in Chinese yuan and U.S. dollar, that is, in foreign currency. It is safe to assume that with the currency, information enters the country.
In order to buy their merchandise, traders have to physically go to China. These same traders use the (in the Democratic People's Republic illegal) Chinese cell-phone network. That is, traders know what is going on at least in China. They may be not well-informed, but the people are increasingly informed.
These are the reasons that make some experts think that the breakdown of the North Korean system is inevitable. There are better reasons, however, to believe the contrary.
Kim Jong-un has been quick in assuming all formal titles of authority. The question remains if he is directly ruling his country or merely reigning over a well-oiled state-machinery. If the second is true, then there is more reason to think that the state is going to remain strong and will oppose any opening whatsoever.
If there still are power disputes within the North Korean regime, then each faction is willing to show a hard stance in power politics, therefore being assertive and negative to any outside influence. If there is disparity, a certain power-pedigree must be established by each faction and this is achieved by being hard, and never by promising opening.
On top of the inner-dynamics of the ruling elite, there are other reasons to believe that North Korea is far from opening. During Kim Jong-il’s reign, the military was strengthened. This applies to its armament as well as to its power. The army will put much effort in defending its supremacy over the state. In easy words: the military will ensure the prevailing of its atomic arsenal over hunger or information or any other need of the population.
Lastly, there is a third reason to dismiss any hopes of quick reform in North Korea: Kim Jong-un is at ease in power. Considered that he is new to the business of ruling a country, Kim appears extremely accustomed to his role. Sometimes and depending on the scene North Korean information services show us, he really seems to enjoy being “the man.”
Even if the theory is right, that he still lacks an all-embracing power basis, he seems to be willing to fight for it. Besides, for the party and for the army it’s not about who is in power, but maintaining it. The business is going to be out-toughing the others.
If (the new) Kim has consolidated his power already, the state of affairs will remain as it was in (the old) Kim’s days. If he is still struggling, then it will be a race for the toughest stance. There is no freedom-prone scenario. In North Korea, it’s still winter.
Henrique Schneider is a traveler in Asia as well as a political analyst. He works as a consultant and analyst in Vienna, Austria, and publishes articles regularly in German and English on economic and security issues related to China and other Asian countries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.