Technology a dictator’s dilemma
In his New Year’s greeting earlier this month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un extolled the benefits of technology, saying: “The industrial revolution in the new century is, in essence, a scientific and technological revolution, and breaking through the cutting edge is a shortcut to the building of an economic giant.”
Even Kim must realize that it’s pretty hard to be “cutting edge” if you have no access to the Internet. And yet, that is the case for nearly all of the 24 million people in his country. While it is hard to get accurate figures on most everything related to North Korea, Martyn Williams, who runs Northkoreatech.org, estimates that the number of North Koreas with Internet access is probably in the “low thousands.” Such access tends to be limited to people in elite or scientific circles.
North Korean leaders have long viewed technological prowess as a source of government legitimacy. The recent satellite launch, for example, can be pointed to as a symbol of regime “accomplishment.”
North Korea is facing an extreme version of the dictator’s dilemma. On the one hand, its leaders are attracted to the knowledge, economic growth, and global connectivity that are facilitated by the Internet. At the same time, they know that the Internet would threaten their grip on power.
Most regimes facing this quandary have chosen to embrace technology, even with the corresponding loss of control. North Korea is likely to do the same. The difference is that it might not survive the consequences.