November 14th, 2011
12:37 PM ET

Zakaria: Will the North Koreans rise up?

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

I noticed a strange item in the news this week. An estimated 200 North Koreans are stranded in Libya right now, among them doctors and nurses whose services are much needed back home. Why are they there? Why can't they go back?

Well, it turns out that they were sent to Libya to earn desperately needed hard currency for North Korea's tyrant, Kim Jong-Il. But now, despite Gadhafi's death and the changing circumstances, he'd rather these essential workers stay away. The same goes for hundreds of other doctors, nurses, technicians and other workers in Tunisia and Egypt.

Why? The Arab spring.

The Dear Leader doesn't want these people, who have seen street protests succeed and dictatorships fall, to return and talk about it. In fact, editorials in South Korean newspapers say that only 1% of North Koreans have even heard of the Arab spring. But how you would have such an exact figure beats me.

What we can say for sure is that the North Korean press has simply not reported on any of the popular uprisings of 2011, obviously for fear of sparking protests within North Korea. In fact, Pyongyang issued a statement in March simply saying Libya's dismantling of its nuclear weapons program made it more vulnerable to western intervention. In other words, 'We, the North Koreans, will keep our nukes as our insurance policy against regime change.' So don't expect Pyongyang to disarm anytime soon. The regime interprets the fall of Gadhafi as a cautionary tale. Don't disarm; don't try to talk to the west; don't open up.

Meanwhile, the suffering of the North Korean people continues. Just last week, UNICEF reported that millions of children there are at risk of being severely malnourished. These children will be more vulnerable to disease and stunted growth. And there's little hope that the government has the ability to help even if it wanted to.

There's been a major shortage of food for years now compounded by adverse weather conditions and a suspension of food aid programs from the U.S. and South Korea. Even China, Pyongyang's only ally, has cut food aid.

So what happens next? No one predicted the Arab Spring, but can one predict a North Korean Fall? Not really. Most of the tools of popular revolt these days are unavailable in North Korea. Only 400,000 people have mobile phones. That's 1.5% of a population of 24 million. Getting a phone requires connections to the regime. Internet penetration rates aren't available but they're estimated to be just as low. There's no Twitter, no Facebook, no YouTube, no Al Jazeera to coalesce the masses.

So bottom-up change does not look like it's going to happen any time soon. So perhaps change could come when there's change at the top. Kim Jong-Il is 70 years old. It's been reported he's had a stroke and has had cancer. And he's picked his successor in a rushed manner.

But the army, intelligence apparatus and the police appear to be solidly behind him and his family. We'll probably never know what's really going on in North Korea, and there is little appetite in China, the one country with influence in North Korea, to force change in Pyongyang.

But it is worth remembering that in a time of mass global unrest and popular uprisings, North Korea remains a highly secretive, brutal dictatorship enslaving its people - arguably the world's worst regime.

For more of my thoughts throughout the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter to visit the Global Public Square every day. Also, for more What in the World? pieces, click here.

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Topics: GPS Show • North Korea • Revolution

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soundoff (238 Responses)
  1. Troll

    As a troll, I must protest this spate of silly trolling. When I was a lad, we took pride in learning to troll. We would spend hours creating complex, highly nuanced personas and, at just the right moment, spring our trap! Nowadays anything goes. Trolling has become little more than a debased hobby, a cheap thrill for the loner-crank. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must return to being fisted by my gay lover. Good day.

    December 19, 2011 at 2:19 am | Reply
  2. T.L.O'Connell II

    Well... Kim Jun IL is dead! Age 69. His son UN is going to take over and he may or may not have strong ties to the military. Hmm... Million man army?! lol , so did iraq. If you want NK to fall then stop buying junk made in China! I dont care if it is a part in a US company or another allie of ours. Dont buy it! If the Chineese do not have extra cash to spend on anyone then they cant. Cause noone else has the cash to give them either.

    December 19, 2011 at 2:22 am | Reply
  3. Emilio Dumphuque

    I think it's time the rest of the world started calling it "Kingdom of North Korea".

    December 19, 2011 at 2:25 am | Reply
    • racer x

      Thank you, Mr. Dumphuque. I dated a Karen Dumphuque in high school ... eh, it's probably a pretty common name.

      December 19, 2011 at 2:31 am | Reply
  4. buttpirate

    I spy a brown eye.

    December 19, 2011 at 2:39 am | Reply
  5. Gabe

    "arguably the world's worst regime"? What's with the weasel words? Which regime is worse? Call it what it is. DPRK is the worst country on earth.

    December 19, 2011 at 3:43 am | Reply
  6. timzmny

    Castro, Stalin, Mao, Gahdafi, and now Jim Jong, all went to meet the devil. So Solly, compared to these guys Hitler was a saint.

    December 19, 2011 at 4:09 am | Reply
  7. macstone

    They will remain the same, the people's spirit has been crushed beyond their ability to recover fast just because IL died today. They are going to need some time. It would be nice to see one united rational Korea.

    December 19, 2011 at 4:15 am | Reply
  8. George Vreeland Hill

    North Koreans will not rise up.
    They simply do not have the means to rise up.
    Where would they get their weapons from?
    There are only two ways the North Koreans will ever be free.
    1. The son frees them.
    2. North Korea starts a massive war requiring U.S. response that would be strong enough to crush North Korea.

    George Vreeland Hill

    December 19, 2011 at 5:01 am | Reply
    • buttpirate

      There is a third possibility: George Vreeland Hill infects Korea's new leader with HIV, thus hastening his death and subsequent emergence of a less authoritarian form of government.

      December 19, 2011 at 5:23 am | Reply
  9. Joe Dugan

    "Arab Spring" is akin to the "Nuclear Winter" that North Korea might become. Both of their masses have no intention of turning into a democracy. It is not in their cultural or political DNA to aspire to democracy.

    December 19, 2011 at 6:15 am | Reply
  10. ALLAMERICAN

    Instead of us making speculations as to what should be the strategy, I think we should empower the people of North and if they want to achieve freedom they need to understand it comes at a cost and only they have to bear those costs just like any other freedom loving nation. The first chapter in the book of dictatorship to put fear IN and OUT. The last chapter is to follow the first chapter throughly & consistently.

    December 19, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Reply
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    Where can I get me one of dem nice tin foil hats too?

    December 19, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Reply
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