Elites in North Korea fear change as sanctions test regime

By Elizabeth Shim  |  Dec. 7, 2017 at 8:57 AM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- North Korea is not going to change its ways and the regime is unlikely to give up its weapons because they have become a necessity for Kim Jong Un and his loyalists, says an academic who lived in the country in 2017.

The doctoral candidate, who is based in Asia, spoke to UPI by phone on the condition of anonymity.

The source, who spent a semester teaching in North Korea in the spring of 2017, said the weapons help Kim and his supporters stay in power.

"If they give up their weapons, they're going to lose their deterrent, their bargaining chip," the source said.

North Korean elites may also be supporting Kim, who has been described as unpopular, because of a number of risks and uncertainties that are beyond their control in the event of unification.

"If South Korea absorbs North Korea, South Korea could go after the elites, execute them," the source said, referring to what he thinks is a collective anxiety driving their support for the regime.

"I'm pretty sure they don't want anything to change, [because] they might have a worse life if a collapse did happen."

It is also unclear, the source said, whether the fragments of information seeping into the country can serve as a catalyst for change in a society that is isolated.

News that contradicts what the state says can be overwhelming, and new information could actually push North Koreans, especially the elites, to be afraid and to become more insular, the source said.

"That's a conclusion I came up with," he said, while not ruling out the impact of media flows, including the secret viewing of South Korean television dramas taking root in the country.

"I'm pretty sure a lot of them understand that their lives could be better, but they are the elite of Pyongyang."

Tougher sanctions could also play a decisive role in what happens next.

"Since sanctions have expanded so far, I'm wondering if Kim Jong Un could still maintain happiness among the elites," he said.

"Sanctions will hinder the North Korean weapons program definitely, because it will make the regime lose millions and millions of dollars."

There may also be dissatisfaction brewing in the Korean People's Army because of their greater access to the outside world.

"The military has access to information, better communication, and when they realize that they're being cheated, I think they can turn on the government."

A North Korean soldier recently defected across the demilitarized zone to the South, but it is still unclear whether he had access to outside information prior to his escape.

Defections, however, remain relatively rare because North Koreans are pressured to keep a tight lid on their curiosity.

While teaching at a North Korea-based university, the source said his students would be "careful about what they asked."

"There are some things they're not supposed to ask me, and some things they're not supposed to tell me," he said. "But sometimes they get really excited and they kind of let their mouths slip once in awhile."

"Then they make eye contact and start being quiet."

Government censorship also made the teaching experience surreal.

As a foreign teacher in North Korea, the source had full access to the outside Internet, and stayed informed on North Korea's missile tests following the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Failed tests in April were not reported in state media, and the "students didn't know what was going on."

"You could tell in their eyes they knew that we had more access to information than they did, and I'm pretty sure they were jealous," the source said. "It's kind of strange, we know more about North Korea than some of the North Koreans do."

But acts of obedience may not necessarily mean North Koreans are genuinely supportive of the regime.

"I think they're more scared of the regime than they're loyal," the source said. "When Kim Il Sung died [in 1994], they all realized it was nonsense, but they're too scared of the regime."

"It would have to take a second famine to take away everything they have. Then they would have no choice but to turn on the government."

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