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A Revolution in North Korea: Could Sanctions Topple Kim Jong-un?

Given the alternatives, economic sanctions seem like the most risk-free method of dealing with North Korea. But are they really the only viable option?

North Korea is one of most heavily sanctioned nations on earth. But its economy appears to still be holding up and Kim Jong-un has shown no sign of slowing the country’s missile and nuclear development program. Increasingly harsh financial sanctions are seemingly having little impact, partly because it has encouraged a rise in informal cross-border trade with China.

Andrei Lankov once claimed that the true aim of sanctions — and the aim that is never openly admitted — is to squeeze the North Korean population hard enough to make them rise up against their political masters. If true, this means that both champions and opponents of economic sanctions share a common view — an assumption that sanctions will engender sufficient anger to start a revolution.

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But links between angry populations and revolutions have been long challenged by researchers. Anger, hunger and deprivation may be features of revolutions, but they are not their sole cause. If they were, revolutions would be a great deal more predictable. The ‘paradox of revolution’, to borrow Jack Goldstone’s phrase, is that, in hindsight, revolutions appear inevitable but no one ever sees them coming. The 2011 Arab Spring is a case in point. North Korean citizens have a lot to be angry about, but there is no reason to believe revolution is inevitable. Other important variables must be factored into predictions of revolutionary change.

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The contagion effect of revolutions is well known. For example, during the Arab Spring, the spark that started revolt in a rural town in Tunisia lit a fire that also toppled regimes in Cairo and Tripoli. Social media, considered harmless by autocratic regimes in the Middle East, played a vital role in spreading news of revolutionary events not only within but across national borders. But with restricted access to the internet and fewer mobile phones, the information flow in North Korea is a lot less predictable. This would severely inhibit the potential for localised protests to grow into a cohesive national opposition movement.

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Leon Trotsky once said that ‘the fate of every revolution is decided by a break in the disposition of the army’. In other words, when the army switches sides and joins the protestors, the central state is often doomed.

The problem is that the army does not join the insurrection of its own accord. The army joined insurrections in the Philippines and Romania in the late 1980s and in Egypt in 2011, but crushed demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in Burma in 2007 and in Bahrain in 2011. The factors that drive military and political elites to join revolutions are complex, but in the current situation we can safely assume that despite evidence of disaffection within the leadership, North Korean elites will defend the Pyongyang regime to save their own skins.

The limited evidence about patterns of unrest in North Korea over the past 40 years does not point to the sort of central state collapse witnessed in Romania in 1989 or in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011. Instead, the outcome could be much bloodier. Any violent unrest in the form of clashes between citizens and security forces over food or conditions and even peaceful demonstrations about perceived abuses have mostly occurred in the northernmost borderlands of the country, such as Sinuiju. The fact that unrest has occurred in the same places and has remained localised is a strong indication that any trouble that does start is likely to be confined to those same areas.

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