Will North Korean society revolt?

The one attempted military coup in North Korea’s 60-year history took place during the mid-1990s famine. It was likely that the severity of the famine drove the military to mutiny.

[Today, as another major famine looms, the recent purge of North Korean military officers] has created a class of officials angry at the new leadership for their loss of power and its perquisites. When Mao and Stalin purged officials, they executed or exiled them to the prison camps for a slow death. These officials are simply being retired. North Korea also sends 40 percent of its young men between the ages of 18 and 25 into the military, [all this a] recipe for political uprising and revolution.

And in a country with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, political uprisings can be dangerous to the world order, particularly if the regime loses control of the weapons as it collapses.

North Korea was able to keep control of the country in the last famine because its propaganda machine convinced the isolated and easily manipulated population that the Chinese and South Koreans were facing mass starvation more severe than what they were suffering. [Today though, more North Koreans are aware this is untrue.]

Another aspect of the North Korean regime’s control over the population: For 40 years the regime successfully used the food system—under which each non-farm family would get a twice monthly ration of food through the public distribution system—but it collapsed during the last famine. Repeated attempts by Pyongyang to resuscitate it have failed.

People are now getting their food through the farmers’ markets which have grown more powerful and more extensive as the sclerotic old order has slowly died. The new economic order taking its place will ensure the people are no longer dependent on the state for their survival which will make them less servile and more prone to dissent.

We saw remarkable evidence of this dissent in January 2010 when popular opposition to a currency manipulation scheme announced by Pyongyang led to public demonstrations, the burning of a police station, and a graffiti campaign by the public attacking the policies which the regime was forced to rescind.

Excerpts from an article by Andrew S. Natsios, an executive professor at Texas A&M University, and former USAID administrator and Special Envoy to Sudan

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