The month of December comes yearly as a combination of recollection and rumination over the events of the year, and speculation regarding developments within the next. 2011’s political events hold one theme in common: Social upheaval in attempts to instigate positive social change.
The year can be characterized as one in which the global population found a common voice of discontent dissent and developed a penchant for finding cracks in prescribed molds and actively challenging traditions—both social and political— that just did not work.
Time magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year cover featured “the Protester,” a potent statement that drives this point home. Sparked within the Middle East’s Arab Spring, and spreading westward on local, national and international scales, “the protester’s” demonstrations sum up the average global citizen and his/her newfound collective voice.
Traditions weren’t working, the mold had too many cracks that too much of the population was aware of: Global and local structural change was a requirement that could not be ignored.
The year’s protests have collectively showcased the potential for mass mobilization, as social communication technologies were harnessed for a break with the very social and economic structure they were created by, and used to perpetuate.
In light of this dissidence, world focus now falls on North Korea and the possibility of internal structural change, even as the country exists in a space primarily segregated from the rest of the globe.
After Kim Jong-il’s recent death, Kim Jong-un taking over power will make him the third member of his family to rule over North Korea. Questions now arise regarding the possibilities of structural change within the country, and whether there is any existing potential for the same.
At a historical point where populations around the world are challenging social and economic equities in a continuing demand for democratic distribution of power in all facets of life, the population of North Korea has only ever known monarchy or dictatorship.
Kim Jong-il’s dictatorship was one of complete regime control over the population, and has received external criticism as being a failure, largely due to chronic famines that caused thousands of deaths.
Yet as we enter 2012, North Korea is arguably the only country showcasing political stability. With imminent presidential elections in the United States, South Korea and Russia; China’s Hu Jintao stepping down; and continuing dissidence in the Middle East and South Asia, only North Korea’s next leader is determined. Yet, his policies and political outlook may well be much less preordained.
Under Kim Jong-un’s rule, will North Korea take up a greater role in world affairs, especially in light of its recently acquired status as a nuclear state? Will bilateral negotiations with the United States be entertained? Is there any potential for decreased segregation of the country’s population from the rest of the world?
While the fact remains that Kim Jong-un, as in any monarchy, is the figurehead and face of the regime and does not hold the power to change the system, his experience of life in a democratic society must be considered as a factor in his rule.
Kim Jong-un attended school in Switzerland from an early age, and the cultural effect of this vastly different social and political system during his younger, impressionable years cannot be ignored.
The majority of the North Korean population lives in oblivion of the outside world, but a minority of diplomats and bureaucrats has been allowed to travel outside the country’s boundaries, to experience other cultures, economic and social structures and commodities.
Among limited interaction with such individuals, journalist such as The Globe and Mail’s Mark Mackinnon have reported a sense of growing discontent, based on these individuals’ knowledge of the massive shortcomings prevalent under Kim Jong-il’s regime.
Consider that North Korea’s lack of mass technological use—despite propaganda showcases of sophisticated technologies—may well be the reason for its chronic food shortages. The use of outdated inefficient and time-consuming farming technology, and a lack of transportation means for the average citizen have been reported as being widespread.
Life for the average North Korean citizen is a consistent struggle for survival within a malnourished, desperately impoverished community that contradicts its fanatical, enforced allegiance to “the great leader” through its neglected daily existence.
It appears that in the limited cultural exchanges allowed to “loyal” North Korean elite, seeds of discontent have been planted and continue to be nurtured. Under the façade of loyal subservience, members of the population are questioning authoritarian control, and are ready for external communication.
Beyond individual discontent, the threat of civil war also remains a potential scenario, if the change of power does not occur smoothly, and Kim Jong-un is unable to maintain control. The country’s possession of nuclear arms becomes a significant threat in this situation, as determining the weapons’ location would prove impossible, amplifying the likelihood of their being lost to the black market.
Still, fear of the regime and its authority remains widespread for now, and it may well be a long time before individuals are able to publically express collective discontent and desire for structural change.
While it is to be expected that Kim Jong-un will continue his father’s policies without making major changes in the constitution, perhaps there is a minute chance that cultural exposure allowed him the same knowledge of and desire for change, as it did with some members of the bureaucratic elite.
Speculation abound, manifestations remain to be seen in 2012.