Mike Tharp: What now for North Korea?

December 20, 2011 

May Day 1979. Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang, North Korea.

Some 50,000 of my closest Korean friends and I thronged the plaza as dancers of all ages, dressed in traditional joseon-ot of many colors, swayed and swung to ancient Korean folk tunes.

The international holiday for workers was celebrated in what was then -- and today even more so -- one of the last bastions of communism in the world.

In one circle of 50 or so people, I clung to the hand of a pretty young woman as we spun round like a Ferris wheel on its side. At the end of a dance, I asked one of my minders, who spoke English, to ask her name so I could use it in a story.

He walked to where she stood chatting with other young women, then tapped her rudely on the shoulder. She turned, saw the Kim Il Sung button on his suit lapel, and her face went white with terror. She visibly sagged when she realized all he was doing was asking a question for the foreigner.

Terror is how Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, have managed to maintain the world's last Stalinist hermetic kingdom. The elder Kim died in '94, his silly son this week. Now the rational world is watching closely, some of us holding our breath, to see what happens in the northern half of the Peninsula.

With four other American correspondents, I spent 17 days in North Korea in 1979. It was the largest group of journalists allowed into the country since the end of the Korean War in 1953, North Korea is probably the only place on earth, outside Antarctica, that hasn't changed much in a generation -- except to get worse.

The dramatic YouTube footage after Kim's death of thousands of North Koreans wailing, gnashing their teeth and rending their garments is halfway legit. As my friend Bradley Martin (who wrote an authoritative book called "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty," and who was on that first trip to North Korea) puts it:

"Culture and tradition play a role. Remember that Pyongyang is where the loyalists live. No doubt there's some worry about the future now that the known quantity is gone and they're supposed to follow a largely unknown 29-year-old successor. Some of the grief over Kim Il Sung's passing in 1994 was genuine, but much of it was orchestrated. If you didn't cry you were in trouble with the authorities for showing insufficient loyalty. I'd guess a much greater percentage is orchestrated this time. There are plenty of apparatchiks to do the orchestrating and the people are used to being manipulated in this way."

Significantly, we didn't see the rural parts of the country, where the gulags hold and kill thousands of people a year. Doubt if they're weeping much over "The Dear Leader."

Yun Suk Lim, a veteran print and TV journalist in Seoul, wrote in an email that there's fear, uncertainty and doubt in her country. "There is this sense of fear among Koreans out in the streets of Seoul. They are worried about what the future holds for North Korea and what this means for South Korea and inter-Korean ties.

"When Kim Il Sung died there was in a way less fear than now because South Koreans knew that his son Kim Jong Il would be taking control and people here had time to know Kim Jong Il. But in this case, South Koreans are not certain that the youngest son Kim Jong Un will be able to take over his power. One elderly Korean man here said, 'He is just too young. I don't think the North Koreans will accept him as their leader.' And so, it's because of this uncertainty that South Koreans are worried.

"And if this is true, then it could create more tension here on the Korean Peninsula. There is a great fear among South Koreans that North Korea could collapse. With the power struggle and people fighting for control at the top, there is this possibility of a collapse and South Koreans say they are not ready for all the North Koreans who will be trying to make their way to South Korea."

Although the world is now faced with a wobbly Stalinist state with a huge arsenal of conventional arms and armies (I don't think they have nuclear weapons, but they've been using that threat to grab attention for a decade), there are three reasons for optimism.

One is Twitter. The Korean language, like Japanese and Chinese, is especially suited to the 140-character limit of that social medium. Twitter was the most-used means of communication in Tohoku after the earthquake/tsunami in March. Same in the Arab Spring countries. If enough North Koreans can access Twitter, the chinks in the armored wall will open wider.

Second is China. The world's most populous nation doesn't need an unstable neighbor -- it's dealing with restive rural residents right now within its own borders. Once the two countries were described "as close as lips and teeth." But the China which has embraced consumerism and some degree of capitalism must find the androids to their west curious at best and quarrelsome at worst.

Finally, there's South Korea. With 49 million people and a GDP of $30,000 a year (the North has 24 million people and GDP of $1,800 a year), the one-time autocracy is now a bastion of pluralism and technology. There's a reason for so many defections from North to South. Look for that number to soar as questions about their future plague Northerners almost as much as not having enough to eat.

That's the glass half-full scenario. The half-empty one is that those at the top of Pyongyang's "classless" society will do anything to hold power and keep prestige. That includes possible actions that outsiders would consider suicidal.

But in that scenario, outsiders don't matter.

I'm pulling for Twitter.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

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