A report this week that the North Korean regime is on high alert is a reminder that the ongoing unrest in the Arab world kicked off by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution has implications that stretch far beyond the Middle East.
The timing of recent events couldn’t have been much worse for the leadership in North Korea. The country is said since last year to be in the midst of another agricultural crisis, and has reportedly taken the unusual step of asking its embassies to plead for food aid.
Against this kind of backdrop, the dramatic collapse of the corrupt regime of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak must have stunned the North Korean elite, particularly Kim Jong-il, who has ruled his starving population with an iron fist. But Kim isn’t the only one who has cause for concern—his entire regime, bound by patronage and family connections, is in the same boat.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Yet while Mubarak and his family were able to beat a hasty retreat out of the Egyptian capital with the assistance of some loyal followers, Kim will undoubtedly feel even more isolated as the country becomes increasingly less safe for him.
This isn’t, of course, the first time that Kim’s grip on power has seemed tenuous—conspiracy theories have been swirling around Pyongyang for years. Indeed, back in April 2004, the Ryongchon train disaster was seen by many as an assassination attempt on Kim, who only hours earlier had passed through the station on his return from a secretive meeting in China. In the end, the Red Cross reported that 160 people were killed, and hundreds more injured.
Mubarak’s ignominious fall at the hands of the Egyptian people, and his replacement with a military government, will undoubtedly have planted seeds of doubt in Kim’s mind about how loyal his own military really is. With such concerns in mind, expect Kim to now quickly move to repair the country’s military, resurrect the long-neglected ideology campaign, and emphasize juche, or self-reliance, to counter the influence of the ‘imperialistic’ United States. Talk of North Korea preparing for a possible third nuclear test sometime this year is also only likely to increase as Kim moves to strengthen his position, with nationalism set to be invoked to bolster unity among North Koreans.
It won’t be easy for Kim to project an image as commander-in-chief of a powerful and prosperous state, but fear of his regime collapsing has repeatedly prompted him to take the most opportunistic option available to ensure his survival.
Last June, for example, Ri Je-gang, a senior Korean Workers’ Party official, was killed in a mysterious car crash, making him just the latest in a line of politicians—probably opponents—to die under such circumstances.