‘Pyongyang Spring’?

by Ryan Sanford Smith

The passing of North Korea’s longtime delusional despot has caused many to begin speculating about the capacity and likelihood of something among the North Korean people that would be even vaguely reminiscent of Tahrir Square. But though the son has risen, the cultural ice age entombing a country that has been justly compared, to everything from a hostage situation to a concentration camp whose guards stand watch with nuclear armaments, doesn’t look to begin thawing any time soon.

The late but always timely Christopher Hitchens points us in the introduction to his last collection of essays, Arguably, to this passage from George Orwell’s Coming up for Air:

…the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for their Leader until they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him, and all the time, underneath, they hate him so that they want to puke.

One would be comforted to feel confident that this were for so many long years the case of the starved and stunted people of North Korea, but the videos leaking out rather immediately from its dystopian borders via social media and then the Western outlets show not a single person without a wail to offer. There is of course no way to know the ratio of genuine lament among those knowing their pitiful role to play at such a moment when the cameras are rolling–and in North Korea one can be assured there one is always being observed–but the rare foreign correspondence we have shows little nausea (or anything else, for that matter) in the belly of its people, much less resistance.

I don’t mean to sound entirely nihilistic about North Korea’s future. But I think more caution is warranted in the optimism seen by many in a time where rebellion sweeps many places where for decades the slightest scintilla of freedom was unimaginable. We had been seeing the embers of revolt throughout the Middle East for quite a long time until they finally caught a stiff wind and found flame. Much like the famous photographs of North Korea via satellite, we see there almost no such light of any kind. Other telling photographs are those of Kim Jong Il, jowled and pot-bellied from luxury and his all too obviously well-fed family, waving out to a malnourished and broken people that now stand on average six inches shorter than their fellows to the south, subjected to years with as little to fill their stomachs as their minds. It is a bit of despotic genius that this rule was never broken despite a decade that even conservative estimates declare saw at least a million dead of starvation. It would indeed seem rather difficult to stand up symbolically when one cannot muster the strength to stand literally.

The transition of power to Kim Jong Un might have offered the kindling of instability had his late father not laid the groundwork for a seamless continuation of oppression almost singular in its chilling absoluteness. It seems the only fires we’ll be seeing will be from the puttering, barely operational rockets that Kim Jong Il’s poofy progeny will drop a few hundred feet off shore in yet another pathetic show of force that will no doubt draw little rebuke much less retribution from an increasingly global world that seems all too happy to do what Kim Jong Il wished us all to do, which is to forget about what has been transpiring in North Korea for generations–except, at least, for when we might be guilted into supplying a little grain that is believed too readily by its people to be yet another tribute from the West to their Dear Leader.