In isolationist North Korea the outcry for democracy in the Arab world has not gone unnoticed. On 16 November a short letter from Kim Jong Il to Bashar al-Assad was reprinted on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. The “Dear Leader”* congratulated the Syrian president on the occasion of the 41st anniversary of the so-called “Corrective Revolution” (the message is also available in an English translation). One day later the same newspaper published a similar letter from quasi-head of state Kim Yong-nam to al-Assad.
On the surface these letters seem like the usual expressions of socialist fraternity. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as North Korea is officially known, regularly sends congratulatory notes to its brothers-in-arms. It’s also hardly surprising that the Rodong Sinmun has otherwise kept quiet about the dramatic events on Syrian streets. And it would be business as usual—if the two high-level letters to al-Assad had not contained another covert message.
Having spent a couple of months retracing the twists and turns of mass media coverage in the DPRK, I conclude that the main recipient of the letters was in fact the North Korean people, not the Syrian president. The final sentences of both letters carry some weight: Kim Jong Il expresses hopes that “you [al-Assad] and your government will achieve success in your work in defending the country’s sovereignty, security and stability,” while Kim Yong-nam wishes that “the people of the Syrian Arab Republic safeguard the country’s peace and stability under your [al-Assad’s] proper leadership.” These statements may be ambiguous enough not to unsettle those North Koreans who don’t have a clue about the state of affairs in Syria, but at the same time they are very stern warnings for the minority who knows better. After all, the readers of the Rodong Sinmun have learned to read between the lines. Congratulating al-Assad for maintaining stability in his country is tantamount to threatening potentially rebellious elements inside North Korea: don’t even think about following the example of the Syrian protesters or you will face the same consequences!
The Syrian example has not just influenced North Korea alone. Libya is a far more worrisome scenario for the regime around Kim Jong Il. Unlike al-Assad who is still in power, the Libyan leader Gaddafi lost control of the situation and fell victim to a NATO-supported rebellion. We don’t know what Kim Jong Il did on 20 October 2011, the day on which the once pavonine Libyan “Guide of the Revolution” was killed. But my best guess is that he felt reminded of the execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu. The Romanian dictator had been one of the closest friends of Kim’s father, the state founder and “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung (who died in 1994). Shortly after Ceaușescu was killed in December 1989, North Korea’s leader-in-waiting reportedly forced high-ranking officials to watch the footage of Ceaușescu’s bloody death for a full week in order to demonstrate the dire outcome of fading control over the population. According to a defector’s testimony Kim Jong Il obsessively repeated that “we will be killed by the people!”
Nowadays the upper echelon of the DPRK is once more showing signs of anxiety. About 200 North Korean doctors, nurses and construction workers on duty in Libya have recently been ordered not to return home, apparently to prevent the circumstances of Gaddafi’s death from becoming widely known in the country. Other recent measures adopted by the leadership—the suspension of a weekly Air Koryo flight between North Korea and Kuwait and tighter regulation of foreign travelers in Pyongyang—point in the same direction. As might be expected, the newspapers have remained completely silent about Libya lately. Likewise, the toppling of the authoritarian governments in Tunisia and Egypt has never made it into official news in North Korea.
Both strategies applied by DPRK media in relation to recent uprisings—intercepting all incoming information as well as implicitly threatening potential rebels at home—are desperate and ultimately unsustainable in the 21st century. Thousands of North Koreans return from illegal border crossings into China not only with food and money but with new technology and information. Yet knowledge alone does not topple a regime like this one: experience teaches us that many more conditions need to be met before people revolt. It looks as if North Koreans still have a long and thorny way to go before they see the prospect of a brighter future. The outcry for democracy in Arab countries could well serve them as a source of inspiration and encouragement.
*) The propaganda apparatus suspended calling Kim Jong Il the “Dear Leader” (Chin-aehaneun Jidoja) in the late 1990s. Instead he is mostly referred to as “Great Leader” (Uidaehan Ryeongdoja) just like his father during his reign. However, most authors outside North Korea continue to use the “Dear,” and I decided to follow this common practice in order to avoid confusion between the two “Great Leaders.”