What are the origins of reform in the DPRK?

Daily NK

Would a governmental transition in North Korea be realized bottom-up, or top-down? On the 23rd of last month, a forum addressing North Korean governmental transition was held in the Conference Hall at Sejong Center.

Professor Choi Wan Gyu of the North Korea Graduate School estimated that, “At the end of the 1980’s, witnessing the sudden changes and the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Eastern European communist countries, our government [the ROK] and North Korea experts predicted that North Korea would undergo similar processes relatively soon, although North Korea has not, as of yet, shown any signs of a governmental shift or a collapse”.

Professor Choi pointed out that, “Unlike the Eastern European countries, the North Korean political system is one of hereditary totalitarianism. Because high-ranking officials and government organizations are ceaselessly reconstructed and controlled by one top leader, a self-regulating system cannot exist and therefore a nonviolent governmental shift is not an option”.

Governmental transition will be possible only through bottom-up revolution

He claimed that, “Under the hereditary totalitarian system, a top-down transition would be impossible, and only bottom-up attempts, such as mass demonstrations or protests, will lead to a change in the system”.

Yet, will bottom-up demands for a governmental transition, like those that occured in Romania, East Germany, and the Czech Republic, be possible in the case of North Korea?

According to Professor Choi, the possibility of a bottom-up transition is unlikely. Such a shift, through revolution, would require repetitive and gradually increasing mass demonstrations and protests, which currently are not taking place in North Korea.

He explained that such demonstrations are not occuring in North Korea, even after the dramatic economic crisis of the 1990s, because most North Koreans lack the motivation to induce such a change, and in North Korea there are no telecommunication and information distribution tools with which to gather anti-governmental forces and encourage mass demonstration.

Using the Romanian case as an example, Professor Choi explained that, “Compared to other Eastern European communist countries, the civil society in Romania was not powerful. Romania was able to induce a change with the help of Hungarian TV, Free Europe Radio Broadcasting Network, and the information distribution strategies of numerous international civil rights organizations”.

Top-down reformation following Chinese liberalization is necessary

However, he pointed out that after the 2000 South-North Korea Summit Conference, the South Korean broadcast to North Korea shifted in tone, to one of encouraging conciliatory gestures, cultural exchanges and cooperation towards North Korea, rather than urging the liberalization of North Korea, as in the past.

Professor Choi explained that a bottom-down shift in the North would be impossible because, “North Korea has no experience with capitalism, mass demonstrations against the government, democratization, or any sort of counter culture which would replace communism and the Juche ideology”.

He added that, “The core reason why North Korea has stayed stable in spite of the worst crisis since its establishment is because of the unique social control and monitoring system within the country”.

He concluded that, in order to initiate a change within the North Korean government, we should help North Korea pursue active reformation and liberalization policies, helping to solve the economic crisis and move away from the communist system we, including South Korea, the U.S. and China, should implement policies that enable North Koreans to use information telecommunications networks.

While internal changes will be difficult, pressure from neighbor countries will help

On the other hand, another participant at the forum, Professor Lee Dong Bok of Myung Gi University, refuted Professor Choi’s argument, saying that, “Because North Korea has a strong hereditary, idolatrous system established, the possibility of a bottom-up change is unlikely”.

Professor Lee claimed that with Chinese reformation and liberalization as a model for top-down governmental transition, a strategy which first removed the nation’s top leaders from a position of authority and idolatry, was necessary in order to make the transition possible.

Professor Park Seung Sik, of the Unification graduate program at Dae Jin University pointed out that, “It is unrealistic to assume that provided with information and telecommunications networks, the North Korean people would be encouraged to participate in revolutionary activities within such a completely controlled society”.

Professor Park asserted that, “If a North Korean governmental transition is not possible through ruling class or mass demonstrations, it is necessary that neighbor countries such as South Korea, the U.S, Japan, China and Russia impose pressure on North Korea, encouraging its reformation and liberalization”.


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