The greatest threat to Kim Jong-un's hold on power may not be potential attacks by the mighty U.S. military, or subversion efforts by the scary Cheollima Civil Defense, now called Free Joseon, or even assassination attempts by security officers who betray him.
Kim can avoid attacks from the U.S. military through skillful negotiations regarding his nuclear weapons. Kim can avoid attacks from Cheollima agents by tightening his border security. Kim can also remain safe from betrayal by his security forces by killing anyone who remotely appears suspicious as he has done in the past.
The greatest threat is emerging market forces that may already be well beyond his iron-fisted control. Let me explain why.
On March 19, Kim Yong-ho made a very informative presentation on cell phone use and private transportation in North Korea at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEIA) in Washington, D.C. The presentation was sponsored jointly by the KEIA and Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). Below is a summary of Kim's presentation as I understood it.
Currently, there are two cell phone companies, providing services to over 4 million subscribers, representing no less than 20 percent of the total population. The use of cell phones is widely spread among young people, who are buying them at almost any price since they will have "no girlfriends without cell phones."
The places where cell phones play a critical role are jangmadang, privatized market places allowed in North Korea. The use of cell phones and private cars has greatly expanded the scope of jangmadang.
Consider a retailer at a jangmadang and a wholesaler doing business far away from it. The retailer calls the wholesaler and places an order. The products are shipped by private transportation called service cars ― also allowed in North Korea.
The use of service cars is unavoidable because only about 3 percent of roads are paved and the speed of trains averages only about 20 to 40 kilometers per hour.
Service cars have many checkpoints before they reach their final destination. Crossing the checkpoints is not a problem, since all that guards at checkpoints require are bribes. Government officials know all about these, but overlook them. They receive bribes of their own from checkpoint guards.
The tight economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations as well as the United States have made salary payments to government employees irregular and insufficient. Bribes originating from jangmadang have become necessary salary supplements for many government employees.
Service cars require gasoline to operate. Although gasoline is in short supply, the supply of gasoline on the black market is enough to make the new jangmadang economy operational.
In fact, the scope of the black market is so extensive that it is not unusual to see military trucks delivering gasoline to service cars illegally. Here again, cell phones play a critical role in that any inspections are warned about quickly among market participants through the use of cell phones.
Cell phone users are known to avoid political talks on their devices, outside their family members and close friends. Although North Korea has developed cutting-edge technology for monitoring cell phone conversations, the cautious exchange of information using them is beyond the reach of government control. Overseas information can, if not already, spread rapidly in North Korea through cell phones.
This interesting presentation by Kim Yong-ho led to my own speculation of likely developments in North Korea.
The failure of the Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam must have been a huge disappointment to many ordinary North Koreans. While this was not reported in the government-controlled media in the North, the emerging cell phone infrastructure must be playing a large role in spreading the bad news to many North Koreans, who were desperately hoping for economic assistance from the rest of the world.
A gradual lifting of economic sanctions will allow the North Korean regime to control new profits and tax revenues in an orderly fashion without angering many North Koreans. What if most, if not all, economic sanctions were lifted simultaneously?
Can the North Korean regime handle the sudden influx of money-making opportunities without inviting mass resentment from the many North Koreans who can hear the latest developments through the cell phone network? Can the confusion really be controlled especially in North Korea that has been running on illegal payments on all fronts?
I think the forces for freedom are already out of the genie's bottle, and I simply do not believe they can be forced back into it, no matter how hard North Korean leaders may try.
The only question I have is what will trigger a mass revolt in North Korea. It does not have to be a significant event. Any event can be blown into something uncontrollable when the seemingly trivial news begins to travel fast through the cell phone network.
Chang Se-moon (email@example.com) is the director of the Gulf Coast Center for Impact Studies.