March 6, 2011 / 8:50 AM / 8 years ago

Q+A: Can the Jasmine Revolution reach North Korea?

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea is facing many of the same issues that led to revolutions from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, but what are the chances of a similar uprising in the authoritarian Asian state?


The so-called Jasmine Revolution started in Tunisia in January when the rural poor took to the streets to protest against high unemployment, rising prices and corrupt rule. It swept the Arab world into North Africa over a matter of weeks.

Many of the same ingredients for a revolt are present in North Korea, where Kim Jong-il has ruled with an iron fist since 1994. He followed in the footsteps of his father, the country’s founder Kim Il-sung. A third generation of the Kim dynasty, Jong-un, is being groomed to take over the centrally-planned economy.

Like the revolution-hit states, the North is beset by dire poverty, worsening food shortages and steep inflation. It relies on its ally China for basic needs such as food and electricity.

The country’s economic mismanagement was underlined by a botched currency reform just over a year ago which wiped out the savings of the merchant class overnight.

There were reports of dissent following the currency reform, and South Korean media say there have been small-scale protests demanding rice and electricity this year, though none of this can be verified independently.

North Korea boasts a million-strong military, and reports say it is struggling to feed its soldiers. Discontented soldiers could be tempted to rise up against the leadership.

Some information about the distant uprisings is filtering through to the North. South Korea’s military has been dropping leaflets detailing the protests, as well as sending food, medicines and radios for residents in a bid to encourage North Koreans to think about change.

Information also flows across the North’s porous border with China. Thousands of North Koreans are engaged in black market activity and smuggling of goods from China to the North, and relay information from the outside world.


The North’s long-time isolationist policy largely keeps its people in the dark about the goings in outside world, and experts say the chances of a repeat in North Korea are unlikely.

There has been no mention of the Jasmine revolts in the North’s strictly controlled state media, and though some outside information can slip across the border, the vast majority of North Koreans are totally unaware of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

And unlike the Jasmine Revolution where the internet and mobile phone technology catalyzed the protests, communication via such networks is virtually non-existent in the North.

The internet is available to only the elite and powerful who support the Kim regime. There is only one mobile phone network, which is strictly controlled, and international calls are blocked. Smartphones capable of carrying Twitter or other social networking sites cannot be used.

There are no civil society-type organizations of the sort that gave rise to the organized, solidarity-style protests. Analysts say ordinary people, battered into submission by decades of repressive rule, lack the will to revolt.

Military and organized pro-government networks strictly monitor all facets of society and troublemakers are dealt with swiftly.

South Korea’s Unification Minister Hyun In-taek says the impact of the Jasmine Revolution on the North will, for now, be “insignificant”.

Reporting by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Daniel Magnowski

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