Kim Jong Un facing an authoritarian contradiction

It’s a dilemma for Kim Jong Un who needs to find a way to modernize North Korea and its economy while holding onto absolute power.

In a clear sign of the North Korea’s border crackdowns, the number of North Korean refugees reaching South Korea in 2012 has dropped by almost half, to about 1,400, compared to last year.

Meanwhile, changing technologies, ambitious smugglers and well-funded critics of Pyongyang mean that everything from DVD melodramas to illegal Chinese cellphones to Korean-language radio news broadcasts funded by the U.S. government make their way into North Korea. And their presence exposes an ever-growing number of North Koreans to the outside world, which threatens the underpinnings of the Kim regime.

The hunger for the larger world resembles, in many ways, the appetites in China in the years after Mao Zedong’s 1976 death, when Beijing began opening the door for the world’s mass media.

“I felt sad about the state of my country when I watched the DVDs,” said a North Korean defector who now lives in Seoul and spoke on condition he not be named, fearing retribution against family still living in North Korea. “I could see Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the United States … these other places were so much better off.”

“There has definitely been a push to roll back the tide of the flow of information,” said Nat Kretchun, associate director of an international consulting group InterMedia, which released a report earlier this year about information flow into North Korea, based on surveys of hundreds of recent North Korean defectors.

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