Digital Government

Why Revolution Can’t Come to North Korea

Mizrahi_North Korea

If you woke up tomorrow morning with the desire to, say, overthrow your government, you couldn’t have picked a better day.

Before you left the house, you could tag some inspirational photos of homemade signs on Facebook; Tweet out a few patriotic blasts with locations of the day’s protest spots; email friends, family, and sympathetic bloggers with firsthand reports and mission statements; Skype with a foreign journalist in one of those romantic grainy interviews you see on CNN; and, if you had a few extra minutes, create a Freedom Playlist to rock out to, because every revolution needs a soundtrack.

This is the golden age of grassroots regime change. Unless, of course, you woke up in North Korea.

The reasons appear obvious. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—the DPRK, known as the hermit kingdom of North Korea to anyone except the DPRK itself—outlaws the Internet, foreign literature, media, and other alternative sources of information. The country itself has no Internet backbone outside of Pyongyang, where a select group of government officials on certain floors of certain buildings can access the World Wide Web (and thereby make a mockery of the term) for purposes of monitoring and selective communication with the outside world. (They themselves are almost certainly monitored by other officials on other floors whose job is to monitor the monitors.) Koryolink, a burgeoning mobile network developed by Orascom, an Egyptian firm, supports over 1 million subscribers in North Korea, but they cannot pick up foreign networks or call outside of the country.

This bizarre technical architecture is reinforced by a terrifying analog infrastructure: the constant surveillance of secret police, the perpetual threat of prison camps, the revocable “privilege” of living in the capital of Pyongyang, and an education system that teaches that all of this, insofar as citizens actually understand it, is fair, right and good. On the whole, North Korea’s policies make Orwell’s 1984 look like a handbook for good governance.

That, of course, is the easy answer to the natural question: Why hasn’t North Korea launched its revolution? Logistically, it’s virtually impossible. And the aforementioned horrors (the prison camps, the secret police, etc.) snuff out any display of lingering discontent. But we know that unhappiness is rife in the DPRK. The testimony of defectors is the best evidence. Along the northern border with China, North Koreans peer over the Yalu River and see uninterrupted lights in the homes of their neighbors. They watch black-market DVDs and access Chinese mobile networks with illegal phones. They swap stories with citizens who have chased food and money across the border and returned to their families. The unstoppable current of technology competes with the state loudspeakers that bark propaganda from street corners. In many cases, it wins. It’s not crazy to think that tomorrow a number of North Koreans will wake up with the thought—just the thought—that something has to change in their country; that they deserve something better. Structurally, that is the same emotional core that sparked the Arab Spring.

Now imagine the young Egyptian kid who woke up in Cairo last year with that revolutionary impulse. He grabbed his mobile phone or popped into an Internet cafe and saw his friends sounding off on Facebook. He in turn began tweeting at anonymous protestors, Skyping with foreigners and emailing with family in other parts of the country. And as he did, he felt something that you in North Korea would not: That he was part of something. Or, put another way, he didn’t feel something that you in North Korea would: Alone.

But the Egyptian kid on Twitter didn’t simply know to meet up in Tahrir Square at 12 PM with a flag and a sign and a brand spankin’ new playlist to share with his friends. He knew something more primal and far more potent. He knew that he wouldn’t be alone, that they would be there too, that other people felt the way he did and were also willing to risk their lives to express it. That’s not social networking: That’s emotional networking.

Because the technologies we celebrate as the harbingers of democracy do more than just coordinate and communicate. They connect—not just fans and followers, but minds. They place photos next to 140-character cries and video feeds next to instant messages. They turn nameless protestors into citizen journalists. They turn a morning reverie of a better life into the afternoon reality of a demonstration. And by doing so, they diminish the loneliness inherent in discontent.

So back to the thought experiment. If you woke up in North Korea tomorrow possessed by the desire to overthrow Kim Jong Un, your revolution would be over before it began. On a basic practical level, you would find yourself unable to coordinate anything on a scale large enough to effect change. But you would also find yourself in a paralyzing state of mind. Disconnected from others, unable to communicate, you would begin to wonder whether you were the only unhappy citizen. You would wonder whether you were wrong. Imagine the alienation you’d feel. Imagine the paranoia. Because for all you know, you’re the only one who feels the way you do, and decades of education, propaganda and policy have made contrarianism a source of deep shame and mortal fear. That is a scary, debilitating, ineffectual place to be. And that, more than any logistical hurdle, is the reason that North Korea has not staged its revolution.

We are obsessed with the logistical utility of technology (it is very useful) and the legal importance of free communication (it is a right), but we under-appreciate the psychological and emotional power of the tools we’ve created. Defectors from North Korea know this best. This week, a defector group near Seoul sent balloons carrying activist leaflets over the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea. That the North threatened to attack the South over the initiative reveals just how vulnerable the DPRK is—not just to competing information, which it can erase in a variety of terrifying ways, but to the emotional message that the North Korean people are not alone. That cannot be so easily erased. And if a tactic as modest as balloon-leafleting can provoke a war, imagine what the advent of technology would stir in a country of 25 million prisoners.

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  • John

    Near as I recall, the US revolted against Emgland without twitter…

    • Robin

      ..and without high technology surveillance. Do not underestimate to what length a state can gather information about its people, as an offspring of East Germany I am well aware of it.

    • http://www.gabrielmizrahi.com/ Gabriel

      You recall correctly. But the US did have its 18th-century equivalents: coffee houses, taverns and newspapers, to name a few. These did the work that Twitter does now, minus the scale. The emotional effect, however, was similar. Social networks need not be digital.

    • Joe

      The United States was not oppressed by the British. British rule over America was gentle relative to every other one of Britains colonies. Additionally, Britains attempts to maintain the 13 were very limited.

  • Ricardo

    I agree with John: revolutions were always a part of human history – with or without instant messaging or social networks.

    • http://www.gabrielmizrahi.com/ Gabriel

      Agreed. But recall that social networks are analog before they are digital.

      • Josh

        However, we still have so little information about the Hermit Country. If the underground movement could catch hold in some from then there might be a chance, but it most likely will take outside forces to remove the dictatorship. The question than lies with, who will be the on to do it?

  • Francis

    Iraq under Saddam was almost equally cut off; there were no un-monitored telephones; computers and copiers were illegal; even typewriters were registered. It took an outside power to remove the genocidal dictatorship. It will take the same in the DPRK.

  • HatesFaggotNazis

    This lidicurous lgument and nevel happen. We rove oul readel and wirr die fol him if necessaly. Sclew you Lound-eye. Tly to come ovel DMZ and see how we kirr fol oul fealrest readel.

  • LK

    There is a longstanding culture of obedience to elders and leadership that is deeply rooted in traditional Korean (and Northeast Asian) society, stemming in part from Confucianism. This cultural/societal/historical factor is at least as important as the issues of analog social media and state police surveillance. Individual cultural factors matter.

  • Robespierre

    Gee, I wonder how revolutions happened before 1990.