How does North Korea get from an information revolution to an actual people-in-the-streets-and-toppled-statues revolution?
I pose that question to North Korean defector Kang Chol-hwan. He admits there’s not a simple answer, but he offers a few scenarios he considers plausible: The government, for instance, could sense the disconnect between its propaganda and the people’s foreign-media education and launch its own reforms, the kind of gradual opening that took place in Russia and China. Or a disillusioned populace could begin defecting en masse, forcing a border control crisis. Or some spark, like the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, could coalesce disillusioned North Koreans into their own Arab Spring, a full-scale grassroots uprising.
But then Kang surprises me by admitting that all those scenarios are unlikely: The Kim regime is too blind and stubborn to initiate its own reforms, he says, and its totalitarian grip may be too tight for a bottom-up revolution. [Nevertheless] he predicts … North Korea’s dictatorship will end within a decade. “They’re already cracking,” he says. “In less than 10 years, I’ll be able to freely go in and out.”
That nakedly idealistic statement, beyond its tinge of wishful thinking, seems to reveal something new about how Kang sees his goal. In spite of all his childhood horrors, he wants to transform North Korea not simply into a nation that will let his countrymen go free, but one that will let him back in: He wants to go home again.
Kang spent his childhood in North Korean prison camps, where his sister may still be today. “This is the best way—the only way for me—to open North Korea,” Kang finally says. “Every day until then is a delay to seeing my family again.”