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.