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Mideast unnerving North Korea

North Korea’s ruler and his heir apparent are scared stiff at the prospect of prodemocracy movements spreading from the Middle East and northern Africa to their home turf.

Even though the North Korean populace are said not to have access to Twitter and other modern means of communications — unlike their counterparts in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen — they appear able to obtain more information on the outside world through cell phones and other methods than is generally thought.

It is this advance in information technology within the world’s most isolated state that has caused much uneasiness for Pyongyang’s supreme leader Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un, who is certain to succeed the father.

Radio Free Asia (RFA), broadcast from the United States, has reported that high-ranking officials of the Korean Workers’ Party were informed in February of the situation in Egypt through an intraparty publication circulated exclusively to the top echelon. The paper attributed antigovernment demonstrations to economic mismanagement, but made no mention of Egypt’s protracted autocratic rule. This indicates all the more clearly, the RFA says, that Pyongyang is becoming increasingly nervous about the situation in the Middle East.

Even though it is extremely difficult to know what is happening with the North Korean government and leadership, other information on North Korea gets out of the country quickly. South Korea can obtain news on most major events that have happened in the north with practically no time lag. If such information can flow out of the country in real time, there should be no doubt that outside information is flowing in just as fast.

The main instrument for transmitting outside information into North Korea is cell phones in China. China has built up a broad network of cell-phone transmission stations along its border with North Korea, making phone communications with Seoul or Tokyo easy. Those traveling back and forth between China and North Korea are bringing cell phones into North Korea.

According to a survey financed by subsidies from the U.S. State Department of 250 North Korean defectors to China, 7 percent of them were using cell phones inside North Korea. Cell-phone service, which started in the North in 2002, is available only to a limited group of people. Yet, the number of users has now jumped to more than 300,000 now — more than 1 percent of the population — compared with a mere 69,000 in September 2009.

Orascom Telecom is the cell-phone service provider in North Korea. Ironically it is headquartered in Egypt, a foutainhead of the prodemocracy movements so dreaded by Kim and son. Orascom CEO Khaled Bichara has predicted that within four to five years more than 1 million North Koreans will be using cell phones.

It has become fairly easy for North Korean defectors residing in South Korea or Japan to communicate with friends and families back home by telephone if they pay off brokers and wait three to seven days. These brokers also serve as “underground banks.”

When money is sent to banks inside China, it reaches designated North Koreans with the help of “collaborators” inside North Korea. This would suggest that, contrary to the general assumption, North Koreans are not “innocent people” who know nothing of what goes on outside their own country.

A Japanese journalist who has made a number of secret trips to the North says that, although Pyongyang is desperately trying to shut out incoming information, the attempt is almost meaningless.

According to this journalist, when an officer of a foreign nongovernmental organization visiting the North asked a resident there in February if the latter knew of what was happening in North Africa, he replied that he did in a matter-of-course manner.

North Korean leaders, meanwhile, are trying to strengthen ideological control over the people. The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported recently that restrictions that China had imposed on the Internet “have dealt a blow to actions that mislead people’s minds and create social instability.”

A Japanese scholar who recently visited China says he was puzzled to hear a Chinese official say publicly that under no circumstances would Beijing allow the North Korean regime to collapse and that China would come to the regime’s aid if needed. This surprised the scholar because, even though the North has long been known as a Chinese “vassal state,” Beijing in the past had never admitted to this sentiment.

The same Chinese official was also quoted as saying that son Kim Jong Un would receive the same warm welcome on his visit to China in the near future as his father Kim Jong Il received on his tour of Beijing shortly after he was nominated to succeed his father Kim Il Sung, the founder of the communist state. This indicates China feels the same sense of crisis as North Korea about the prospect of prodemocracy movements in Middle East and North Africa influencing its people.

North Koreans do not appear able to rise up against their leaders in a unified manner as people in North Africa and the Middle East have done. That’s because their thoughts and actions are watched vigilantly by five layers of organizations, including the Korean Workers Party, the national security division and monitors at the workplace.

Nevertheless, the father-son team seems scared. This is reminiscent of Pyongyang in 1989, when then father and son Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il had a helicopter made ready for their possible escape to another country after hearing the news that Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu had been executed in the revolution against his dictatorship.

Is the same sense of dread felt by today’s father and son?

More intriguing is the view from the ground up: Has an insurgent mood reached the point in North Korea as to make the hereditary leaders nervous? Some believe that a small incident could very well ignite a major explosion.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the April issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic issues.