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Discord in China may be good news for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un

AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
In Seoul, South Korea, a demonstrator sympathetic to protesters in China holds up a blank paper during a rally to denounce the Chinese government’s continued “zero-COVID” on Nov. 30, 2022. Despite protests in China and Iran, North Korea, however, makes those two countries seem almost free by comparison.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, may have visions of serving as president for life, but first he must get rid of thousands of dissidents eager to overthrow him after lockdowns mandated by his “zero-COVID” policy. 

Xi is deploying every instrument he has to repress an uprising in danger of spreading before he gets it totally under control. While the police pounce on protesters, Xi’s technical wizards do their best to shut down every conceivable opening on the internet. Try to find what’s happening in major cities via Twitter by punching in the Chinese characters for the capital, Beijing, and the business and industrial port of Shanghai, and you come up with hundreds of images advertising pretty women for sale. 

No, they’re not pornographic, as some have reported in the West. The women are all wearing something, however scanty, as mandated in a country where naked ladies online are off-limits, but the ruse cuts off the flow of images of demonstrations that anyone outside China can see. All those elsewhere need do is punch in the names of Chinese cities in English, which is banned on Twitter in China along with a lot of other material the authorities don’t want Chinese citizens to see. Inside China, you can’t even communicate via gmail.

Like Iran, another bastion of authoritarian rule, China should have been almost the last place on earth where dissidents would dare defy the systems in which they exist. The dictators at the top of the ruling structures of these countries count on their security forces to round up the miscreants and on their courts to mete out drastic sentences, including death. The fact that Xi has had to repress demonstrations in Beijing, Shanghai, the huge southern port city of Guangzhou and a score of other centers would have seemed unimaginable as he began a third five-year term in October as general secretary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the wellspring of power. 

Now images of the bloody crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, in which more than 10,000 were killed in June 1989 when the army finally moved in, come to mind.

Could Xi face the kind of protest that’s boiling in Iran? The forces upholding the rule of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have killed several hundred mostly young people in an uprising that’s been going on for months. 

Ostensibly, the protest in Tehran was triggered by the fatal beating of a young woman caught for violating the strict Islamic dress code. Now protesters are demanding the end of the Islamic regime, which, if anything, is more harsh than that of the late U.S.-backed Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, overthrown in 1979.

In China, outrage against restraints to stop the spread of COVID-19 has escalated to opposition to dictatorship, period. It wasn’t just that entire communities were quarantined in the ongoing response to the disease, which broke out in Wuhan in 2019. As in Iran, a single episode sparked the protests — the death of 10 people in a fire in the remote city of Urumqi, in Xinjiang Province, after fire engines were delayed getting to the scene by barriers set up to combat COVID.

In China, as in Iran, the protests have to be welcomed by Washington, even though President Biden is refraining from paroxysms of joy. He may be confident the Chinese aren’t going to go beyond rhetoric in their claims to the independent island province of Taiwan while unrest simmers on the mainland. Obviously Xi, orchestrating a campaign to repress the protesters, has to focus on his homefront. Signs calling for his ouster show the weakness of his rule beneath external displays of bravado. The police may force overt dissent out of sight — not out of mind.

But what about North Korea? How is it that Kim Jong Un has been able to maintain such tight control over his people, many of them hungry, living in poverty as they face another harsh winter? Is there absolutely no chance of unrest finally flaring up against his brutal rule?

The answer is almost certainly “no,” as it has been for the entire history of the Kim dynasty, going back to the installation of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, by the Soviet Union after the Japanese surrender in 1945. No one’s perceiving overt hints of opposition to Kim’s rule, even though some of his impoverished citizens must be unhappy. He has been so successful at tightening his northern borders along the Yalu and Tumen rivers with China that we’re not even hearing much from the few defectors who somehow make it to the South.

In comparison to North Korea, China and Iran seem almost like free countries. It’s virtually inconceivable, given the depth of domestic espionage in North Korea, of colleagues informing on colleagues, of neighbors spying on neighbors, to imagine anyone risking death by breathing a word of protest against the regime.

But aren’t people in North Korea at all aware of what’s happening in China? Don’t they get the news by tuning into illicit broadcasts, or via highly risky mobile phone connections? Thousands of North Koreans live and work legally, with full authorization, in the Chinese city of Dandong across the Yalu from Sinuiju, the major North Korea city facing China. Although Chinese authorities are stifling the news, some people in Dandong must have gotten wind of trouble.

But maybe China’s problems are good news for Kim Jong Un. Xi and Kim have exchanged messages pledging to work more closely than ever for their mutual benefit. Xi may be less likely to pressure Kim into holding off on another nuclear test while worrying about rebellion at home. Maybe he’ll throw in more shipments of oil, food and other vital supplies and totally forget about United Nations sanctions against the North for its nuclear and missile tests.

For sure, Kim will be anxious to stop any hint of protest from spreading into North Korea. Just as he closed his borders with China at the first sign of the pandemic nearly three years ago, so too he’ll keep his fiefdom more tightly shielded than ever from the dread disease of civil disobedience.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags China protests Iran protests Kim Jong Un Kim Jong Un North Korea Xi Jinping

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