Correction: An original version of this post noted that aid to Kyrgyzstan on the part of investor George Soros and the State Department began in 2005. The beginning of Kyrgyzstan aid by both parties began in 1995. This post has been corrected to reflect this.
Kim Jong Il died Saturday, leaving the totalitarian-led and poverty-stricken nation of North Korea in public mourning. But what about in private, especially online — assuming anyone in the country is active on the Web outside of state-run media?
I spoke with University of California at Los Angeles Department of Information Studies Assistant Professor Ramesh Srinivasan (@rameshmedia)about what effect, if any, social media could have on breaking down the totalitarian regime and promoting democratic change. Srinivasan is an expert on the role of social media during the Arab Spring, which quickly turned into the Arab fall and winter — a revolutionary cascade that took down regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and continues to threaten others.
“North Korea is one of the unique countries in the world because virtually every computer or technology that could be used for some social media application is regulated by the government,” said Srinivasan. This is unlike China, which allows its citizens access to technology but approaches media censorship at the Internet protocol level.
“The North Korean censorship approach runs all the way down to the level of hardware,” Srinivasan said — an approach made easier by the country’s size. The smaller the country, the easier it is to control who has access to resources, ranging from food and water to technology.
But with Kim Jong Il’s death, there is an opportunity, however small, for cracks to emerge in the regime, giving people greater opportunity to gain access to previously banned technologies. “Often, when particularly strong leaders collapse,” Srinivasan said, “there’s a moment of transition or pause where the new regime has to establish itself.”
According to Srinivasan, this could mean one of two things:
1) The new regime decides to take on a pragmatic, conciliatory approach toward the international community. “Kim Jong Il in the last several months was extending small olive branches to the rest of the world,” Srinivasan said. This could allow for greater access to technology and social media. Srinivasan cited a similar step taken by Kyrgyzstan in 1995, when the country desperately needed foreign aid. Billionaire investor George Soros and the U.S. State Department helped build inroads with the government, and “as a result, the blogosphere emerged in Kyrgyzstan in 2005,” said Srinivasan, who studied there prior to its revolution of 2010. “The question is whether that story will repeat itself.”
2) “Even if on a purposeful level the new regime and the new leaders are not interested in being conciliatory, a vacuum could exist,” Srinivasan said. “That’s an opportunity for a variety of other influences or low-level diplomatic channels to emerge.” Part of that reaching-out process may include various types of social media outside North Korea. “A vacuum may allow activists potentially within the country to reach out to the outer world,” he said. “It may not be the government that takes the initiative, but instead underground factions within North Korea who reach out to the rest of the world. This may influence the establishment of social networks with other parts of the world.”
Another possibility is that the fear of an even more brutal ruler could inspire North Korea’s people to stage an uprising in the digital world. “Sometimes what happens in these situations is the new guy comes in and, in his decision to set an example, he could be even more brutal than the previous regime. And to some extent, that it what was feared by the people in Egypt,” Srinivasan said. “One of the reasons people in Egypt told me they were willing to go for it in Tahrir Square, is because Gamal Mubarak, [ousted president] Hosni Mubarak’s son, was hated even more by the populace than Hosni and was feared for his corruption and brutality. So, sometimes it creates a lot of urgency for activists to find ways to act out, if these people exist in North Korea. Social media could be at the center of these possibilities.”
But how could that happen in a country where access to computers is restricted to families most loyal to the regime? “It’s certainly not a North Korean liberation movement that would create a group on Facebook like we saw in Tunisia and Egypt,” Srinivasan said. “My sense is that this would happen in the back-channel blogosphere, back-channel chat groups, back-channel fora.”
This is a very different environment than in Egypt, where the Facebook groups supporting the Egyptian movement are and were created and supported within Egypt. “I think we’re going to see sometimes humorous groups and activity on Twitter and Facebook supporting and speculating on North Korean democracy,” Srinivasan said.
“It’s extremely interesting because North Korea and Cuba, to a lesser extent, are great examples of how the presence of the Internet may not mean the end of gated walls. It debunks the mistaken assumption that the Internet’s presence alone will flatten and democratize,” Srinivasan said. “Instead, this is all dependent on whether regimes can independently fight or subvert social media for their own aims.”
For those eager to take advantage of the transition to begin a potential democracy movement, Srinivasan recommends reading up on the small repository of information available on North Korea. He also recommends that the handful of individuals with contacts in the region begin reaching out to try to understand what, if any, opposition movements are underway.
And, of course, there’s always China.
“This is a time to jump on China for diplomats, activists and civil society organizations,” Srinivasan said. “China is going to have a huge role to play in what’s going to happen. I’m sure, as we speak, Kim Jong Il’s son is probably in contact with Chinese advisers. So this might be an opportunity to hold some leverage with China.”
“The ability to extract a liberalized Internet for citizens is not trivial,” Srinivasan said. “It’s a pretty exciting time.”
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