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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un   © Reuters

History suggests Kim's people will get their say

When Communist rulers launch reform, public protest often follows

Stefan Wagstyl | China

As Kim Jong Un considers a nuclear disarmament deal that could transform Communist North Korea's future, very few of his people have had any chance to voice their opinion in public. And given the country's decades-long record of violent oppression, not many will be venturing their views in private either.

But it is worth recalling that any form of liberalization in most other Communist regimes has been accompanied, sooner or later, by public movements, usually mass protests, involving thousands if not millions of people. Some, such as Poland, had long records of anti-Communist resistance. But others, Albania, for example, had little or no protests until the regime itself began to liberalize.

The current rounds of nuclear diplomacy are a long way from even the beginning of domestic change in the Hermit Kingdom. A political transformation is perhaps the last thing on Kim's mind. But a nuclear deal could involve huge inward investments. Plus the arrival of foreign business people and technical experts. If that ever comes, it is hard to see how the consequent economic changes would not have political implications. Certainly, in almost every other Communist country that has happened.

The foreign leaders talking to Kim -- Donald Trump of the U.S., China's Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in -- should therefore not assume that North Korea's 25 million people will never have a chance to shape events. History suggests that -- at some moment -- they will.

The precedents are many. Reforms launched by Communist regimes have often triggered some sort of protest. The thaw that followed Stalin's death in 1953 was one such moment. As the Soviet Union's leadership haltingly eased some of the late dictator's most repressive controls, trouble broke out across Communist eastern Europe, with workers' demonstrations in East Germany and Poland, and most notably the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Even in the Soviet Union, the "thaw" emboldened dissident writers -- such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- who later became a thorn in the regime's side.

More recent is the example of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, whose original intention was not to dismantle Communist rule, let alone destroy the Soviet Union. But the expectations he created, combined with the weakness of Soviet rule by that point, made it impossible for him to resist the pressures he unleashed.

The domestic anti-Communist forces went further even than their Western supporters, the U.S. included, wanted. As late as August 1991, a few months before the Communist empire finally ended, American President George H.W. Bush was in Ukraine warning Ukrainians against breaking up the Soviet Union.

As the great powers today involved in North Korea -- China as well as the U.S. -- should carefully note, Bush was overtaken by events.

Almost every Communist transformation involved Communist would-be reformers who wanted to use change to preserve the existing system. But even in the most repressive countries, where dissent had previously barely existed, as in Albania, regime-based reformers were swept away by popular forces. The main exception has perhaps been Communist Cuba, where moderate economic liberalization in the past 10 years has so far not triggered protests.

Now, Europe is a long way from North Korea and there are many differences. In Europe, traditions of popular political protest ran deep into the past and often crossed borders via proximity, migration and cultural exchanges. Notably, people in Communist East Germany could watch West German television because an official ban was not rigorously enforced.

By contrast, North Korean leaders have isolated their people more successfully than any other government. Even with South Korea, the other part of what was once a single country with a common language and history, the separation has been profound. The prohibition on foreign broadcasts, including from the South, has been strict, and internet access is limited to a domestic-only network, except for top officials and foreigners.

But there are examples of effective public protest much closer to Pyongyang, not least in South Korea. In 1987, the military-backed government of President Chun Doo-hwan was forced by demonstrations to grant elections which led later to full-blown democracy.

Another glaring difference between Communist Europe and North Korea is that in the final years of Communist Europe the economy was stagnating, while North Korea is seeing growth, albeit from low levels, fueled by modest economic liberalization.

But here again history's lessons are tricky. In China the root cause of the student demonstrations which led to the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 was the economic liberalization movement launched by Deng Xiaoping a decade earlier. The economic changes fueled expectations of political change, which were further encouraged by the Communist Party's own liberals, not least by Hu Yaobang, the moderate Communist Party general secretary until his dismissal in early 1989. With a bloody crackdown, the regime re-established political control but at a high price.
A final difference with Communist Europe is that in Europe, the West offered a clear ideological template for reformers and protesters. In North Korea, the competing influence of the U.S. and China, plus South Korea, creates a complex mix. It could be harder for potential protests to coalesce, especially as Washington may favor political liberalization while Beijing might prefer the opposite.
Scholars know little about North Korea's protest potential as it is so closed. Kathryn Weathersby, a professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, said the only resistance the regime has met since the 1950s was in 2009 when it tried to impose confiscatory currency reforms after earlier liberalizing the economy to create breathing space for private entrepreneurs. "It was intended to confiscate the capital people had made in the new market economy," said Weathersby, a specialist in Soviet and Korean history. "People resisted. ...We don't know the details. The regime backed down, the currency reforms were dropped and the finance minister lost his job."

Since then, the economy has grown, the streets of Pyongyang have grown more colorful with clothes, shops and cars, and traders are freer than before to do business in China. While foreign television and global internet access remain banned, more people are watching South Korean television programs via smuggled flash drives and DVDs. Weathersby says: "Kim needs sanctions lifted to boost the economy. As people have economic power they can make demands, as they did in the Soviet Union."

Meanwhile, more than ever, South Koreans are encouraging North Korea to imagine the possibility of domestic change. This is implicit in President Moon's offers of huge economic assistance in the event of a nuclear deal. And it is explicit in, for example, the message broadcast daily by South Korea's religious broadcaster, the Far East Broadcasting Company, which uses Christian radio to undermine Pyongyang's ban on religion.

Uncontrolled political and/or economic change is the last thing that Kim wants. He made that clear with his furious response to suggestions from Washington's hawks that North Korea might follow the "Libya model." As Kim well knows, former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi agreed to a nuclear deal only to be overthrown and killed a few years later by Western-backed rebels.

But is the supreme leader better placed than Mikhail Gorbachev to determine how his people might respond to events? They have already been treated to unprecedented television coverage of Kim shaking hands with Moon on the border dividing the two Koreas. Who knows what the effects of these images will be?

As President Bush later wrote some years after the momentous events of 1991: "I wanted to see stable, and above all peaceful, change. I believed the key to this would be a politically strong Gorbachev and an effectively working central structure."

They are words that those involved in the North Korea talks might take to heart.

Stefan Wagstyl is comment editor of the Nikkei Asian Review and a former Berlin bureau chief of the Financial Times.

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