It’s imaginable, but every expert you talk to will give you a different view of how probable it is. Overall, in North Korea, things have been much worse in the past than they are now. North Koreans are much poorer than their neighbours – the Chinese, let alone the South Koreans – but they tend to compare their condition not with their neighbours, but with what they’ve been through themselves.
And things have got better, particularly in Pyongyang. A Russian expert told me a couple of weeks ago that they believe that real economic growth in North Korea in 2015 was about three percent – not stellar, but not complete stagnation – and most of that is in Pyongyang. So the outer elite, the people who don’t necessarily make strategic decisions but carry out the Kim dynasty’s will, they’re doing – by their standards – okay: more coffee shops and restaurants opening, a general sense of well-being around the city.
"There will be all kinds of corrosive influences. South Korean soap operas that people bring in on memory sticks, which are watched illicitly by small groups of North Koreans."
The big question is how far this increased well-being meets their expectations. The regime faces the problem that all the time more and more information is getting into North Korea showing just how backward and poor the country is compared to its neighbours. So: are those expectations now rising faster than North Korea’s modest economic growth can meet them? People who are starving tend not to revolt, because they’re far too busy looking for food. It’s when people get a bit of food in their bellies, and start to think about politics and where they stand in the world, that authoritarian regimes face challenges.
If you’re a farm worker somewhere out in the rural north of North Korea, your information about the outside world is probably somewhere close to zilch – but then your understanding of what goes on in the cities, away from your village, is probably pretty limited, too. If you are, however, a member of even the Pyongyang outer elite, let alone the central elite, you probably know quite a lot, now. There will be all kinds of corrosive influences. You have information coming across the border from China, traders coming back telling stories, and – perhaps most corrosive of all – South Korean soap operas that people bring in on memory sticks, which are watched illicitly by small groups of North Koreans. These don’t necessarily give a complete factual account of South Korean life, but they do provide an alternative vision of reality.
“Every now and then you get a North Korean general on national television. The fixed stare and gritted teeth make you realise that these people really only understand the use of force.”
A military coup is not out of the question. There have been attempts in the past, which have been suppressed. It’s not inconceivable that one might succeed. The hardliners are pretty hardline – swivelling eyeballs, frothing mouths. Every now and then you get a North Korean general interviewed on national television, and the fixed stare and the gritted teeth make you realise that these people really haven’t got much understanding of the outside world, and really only understand the use of force.
Remember, though, that when revolts have happened against authoritarian regimes elsewhere, they’ve always happened at a time nobody was expecting it,in a way nobody had thought of.
John Everard is the author of Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat In North Korea.