As the international community and regional stakeholders look to take advantage of the small window of opportunity to reform the ‘hermit kingdom’ following Kim Jong-il’s death, it seems premature to predict a “Pyongyang Spring” in the making.
As a New York Times editor who visited the country a few years back put it, the regime under Kim Jong-il might be the most totalitarian in the history of mankind. Unlike Stalin, Kim Jong-il took advantage of emerging technologies to perpetuate the regime’s propaganda unlike no other while blocking its use for his citizens and keeping them isolated from the rest of the world.
North Korea is quite different from the regimes found in the Arab world and far less vulnerable to the challenge of civil society. Unlike countries who witnessed the spring of revolution this year, the citizens of North Korea carry the badge of being the most isolated in the world. They have no access to the social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter which played a huge part in organising and guiding protests in the revolutions in the Arab world. The odds that the regime could be eclipsed by a power struggle in the wake of Kim Jong-il’s death remain low as the isolationist state which exercises control over many aspects of the nation’s culture is once again perpetuating a cult of personality around the 29-year-old heir apparent, similar to when Kim Jong-il inherited the country’s leadership after his father’s death.
However, what can be said with certainty is that there is no certainty in what will follow in one of the most secretive states in the world. To think that the international community can jump in to save the day from a nuclear-armed state with suicidal tendencies would be naïve. After all, South Korean and US officials weren’t even aware of the enigmatic North Korean leader’s death 48 hours after the fact.
At best, what should be expected from regional and global stakeholders is a show of respect for the demise of a head of state, to steer clear of any inflammation of tensions in the region and also to keep assumptions of any escalation or a show of force by the North Koreans at a bare minimum as they could very well lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.