Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why North Koreans Don't Revolt . . .

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(Image from Economist)

A recent, unsigned article in the Economist, "Food and stability in North Korea: Deprive and rule" (September 17, 2011), asks a common question, "Why does North Korea's dictatorship remain so entrenched despite causing such hunger and misery?" But it gives an uncommon answer as to why the North Koreans do not revolt:
One intriguing explanation comes from Go Myong-hyun, a statistician at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, which has just held a conference in Seoul on the viability of the North Korean regime. On the basis of satellite imagery of crop areas, vegetation and human settlement, Mr Go believes that both North Korea's crops and the population that tends them are more geographically scattered than outsiders have hitherto thought. He contests UN estimates that over three-fifths of the country is urbanised. That would require every farmer to sustain nearly two city dwellers, which a shortage of fertiliser, farm machinery and fuel precludes. Mr Go reckons that urbanisation could be as low as 25%, based on data from the Global Rural Urban Mapping Project, a global population map. That would imply three farmers for each city dweller. It suggests that, even though much of the country is cut off from the food-distribution system, rural dwellers survive precariously through subsistence farming.
Moreover, communication and transportation in North Korea are so bad that an uprising is hardly conceivable, let alone likely to succeed. North Korea is thus utterly unlike the Arab states of North Africa and the Middle East that have recently risen up in revolt. Those Arab states are highly urbanized, and their populations are interconnected via social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter, thereby enabling large groups to maintain connections and organize resistance.

North Korea, however, is a largely rural society with as much as 75 percent of its population involved in agriculture, and it has no such social networking services. Its most urbanized part is centered on Pyongyang, "where the elites live, enjoying perks and protected by an overwhelming security apparatus." There will thus be no revolt unless the North's economic decline were to grow severe enough for the privileged in Pyongyang to see their perks slipping away or for the military and security apparatus to see their own status threatened. I think that what one can hope for, instead, as markets develop, is for corruption to undermine loyalty to the regime and the legitimacy of the state as authorities begin to obtain more money and power through bribes than through official patronage networks.

The article, by the way, also has an eye-opening slideshow of nine photos from Panos Pictures showing scenes of the North's backward agricultural society.

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