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The Peninsula

Why is the Flow of Information so Threatening to the North Korean Regime?

Published August 14, 2014
Author: Sang Kim
Category: North Korea

By Lisa Ji

Computer science majors may have a larger role to play in promoting socio-political changes in North Korea than one may suspect. On August 2nd, computer programmers and human rights advocates gathered together in San Francisco, to discover new ways of providing information to and from the highly reclusive country, North Korea. In the two day event called “Hack North Korea,” teams of mostly college students from the Silicon Valley area brainstormed ideas ranging from clandestine aerials which enable North Koreans to watch banned TV programs to a giant slingshot that flings media across the border from China.

There have been various other efforts other than “Hack North Korea” that have attempted to disrupt the Kim leadership’s monopoly on information. Most recently, human rights activists launched around fifty large helium balloons filled with the popular Korean snack, Choco pies, along with anti-Pyongyang pamphlets across the Korean border. Additionally, independent radio broadcasters such as Radio Free North Korea, have conducted numerous activities providing free radio stations to the North Korean people for years.

So, exactly how threatening is the flow of outside information for the Kim regime? Apparently, very. Although some of these ideas to provide outside information into North Korea may seem a bit basic in dealing with a socially and politically complicated regime, they have incited threatening and defensive responses from the North Korean government. In a speech in October 2012, Kim Jong-un reportedly called upon his vast security network to “ruthlessly crush” any type of “ideological and cultural infiltration.” South Korean intelligence also arrested a defector referred to as “Enemy Zero” in September 2011, who allegedly was  sent by the North Korean government to assassinate Park Sang-hak, lead organizer for the project to send balloons with anti-North Korean leaflets and snacks across the border.

Leadership studies provide insight into why the Kim leadership reacts so sensitively to information exchange. German sociologist Max Weber, for instance, is often cited for his work on the ‘charismatic authority.’ According to Weber, charismatic leadership rests “on the devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.”  Similarly, political scientist and expert on leadership studies, James MacGregor Burns adds to Weber’s theory by introducing both transactional and transformational leadership types. For Burns, transactional leadership concerns leaders who focus on relations that appeal to the follower’s self-interest. Transformational leadership, however, “goes beyond personal self-interest by appealing to the values and emotions of followers. Transformational leaders, therefore, seek to create significant change in the behavior and belief systems of their followers, often encouraging personal sacrifice to achieve goals that benefit the team, group or organization.”

All three leaders of North Korea—Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un—embody transformational and charismatic leadership types. Propaganda videos, music and even the country’s monuments commemorate not only the three Kim leaders’ history of exemplary, heroic, and moral character, but also their vision to create an independent, self-reliant, and reunified Korean peninsula (a vision which has often played on the sensitivities of most Korean nationals).  The Kim regime consolidates its legitimacy and prestige through the values and visions in which the Kim family claims to embody.  In other words, they claim that their right to rule is not based off their own personal self-interest, but rather for the greater “social good” of the Korean people.

Tarnishing such images of the Kim family would create monumental changes within North Korean society. Unlike the United States where the President’s claims to legitimacy is based far more on the rule of law, the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, would face a huge legitimacy crisis if information that ran contrary to the leadership’s perfectly packaged moral character appealed to the wider North Korean population.

Although greater information access into North Korean society may not provide overnight reforms to its governance, efforts such as “Hack North Korea” highlight how it may spark the preliminary steps in undermining the Kim leadership. With our constantly evolving technological sophistication, information exchange may have a bigger role to play in changing the socio-political landscape in North Korea. Whether through a device to fling media across its borders or a mass spread of USBs which portray the human rights atrocities of the Kim leadership, the flow of outside information is probably one of the most dangerous threats to the North Korean regime.

Lisa Ji is currently receiving a Masters in Asian Studies from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo is from *n3wjack’s world in pixels’ creative common album.

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