Springtime for North Korea?

By Sun Woo Ryoo

GEORGE Kennan, the chief architect of the American strategy of containment, expressed his doubts for a quick end of the Cold War, saying it may only “be possible to negotiate the end of the Cold War when a new generation of enlightened Kremlin leaders takes power.” It took half a century, but Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader who renounced the cruelty of the Soviet system, finally emerged to fulfill Kennan’s prophecy.

The world awaits the emergence of a Mikhail Gorbachev of North Korea. After sixty years of Communist rule on the peninsula, the world yearns for Plato’s philosopher king or Voltaire’s enlightened despot who would legislate a new glasnost and perestroika. Kim Jeong Un, the next in line to replace his father as head of regime, appears far from promising. As he celebrates the March 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, a South Korean vessel, and the bombing of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong later that year, Kim Jeong Un entrenches himself deeper in the Seon -gun (“Army First”) and isolationist policies of his father. Equally troubling was the complete calm in the country during Kim Jong Il’s long visit to China this year. The forecast predicts a Korean winter, not an Arab spring.

Perhaps the meteorologists have underestimated the atmospheric pressure. Perhaps North Korea’s Tahir Square moment is not too far around the corner. The young generation of North Korean people, while at the moment passive supporters of the North Korean regime, are likely to be a decisive factor in destabilizing North Korea, should appropriate conditions arise. It is the youth of North Korea that the world should look to for bringing changes to the North Korean regime.

On the surface, this may seem like a bad bet. Unlike the generation of their grandparents and parents, the youth of North Korea has been force – fed on Juche, the doctrine of the “self.” The ideology arose from the turbulence of the Sino – Soviet split, during which North Korea could look neither to Beijing or Moscow for stable support. Drawing elements from Marxist-Leninism, Maoism, Stalinism and neo-Confucianism, the resulting ideology stresses nationalism and allegiance to the Kim family. In keeping with Juche gospel, the North Korean citizen prays to Kim Il Sung for good fortune. Juche nourishes the fragile North Korean regime and yet may be the source of its downfall.

Juche leaves no room for other doctrines, faiths, or opinions in North Korean society. Neo-Confucianism insists on the importance of the family, the country, and the teachers. Communism stresses solidarity with the party leadership and the international proletariat. Juche, on the other hand, has only one value: fidelity to the Kim regime. The result is a bare morality system, ill-equipped for the modern era.

New developments in telecommunications have exposed residents of the hermit kingdom to the outside world. Cell phones are available to many North Korean citizens. They now also have radios that can tune in to frequencies the North Korean government has banned, such as the Voice of America. The North Koreans have not only imported Western technology, but also its vices. Prostitution, pornography, and infidelity are becoming more pronounced problems. Food shortages and poverty force many mothers to resort to prostitution to feed their families. Social pressures, meanwhile, impel their teenage daughters to sell their bodies to earn the cash for cell phones. Last March, a North Korean soldier was arrested for producing a pornographic film and selling it to a Chinese merchant. “The sex commerce will continue to thrive, as North Korean citizens who are exhausted from political suppression and hardships of life see the adult entertainment as a psychological relief,” said one unnamed source. The rise of infidelity is perhaps most worrisome. How can the Kim Regime demand loyalties from people not faithful to their own spouses?

The rise of prostitution, pornography, and infidelity, more than erosion of values, are acts of resistance against the regime. Disillusionment with Juche is only likely to grow as appetite for the Western lifestyle expands. As the world has learned from the uprising in North Africa and the Middle East over the past year, sometimes it takes the pitchfork, not the philosopher-king or Perestroika, to achieve freedom and dignity.

Sun Woo Ryoo is a freshman in Morse College.

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