North Koreans think the unthinkable

Asia Times/April 19, 2005
By Andrei Lankov

Seoul -- For decades, the commonly accepted truth of North Korea watching was that the North Koreans do not rebel. It was widely believed that after decades of Stalinist-style rule - arguably, the harshest and purest form of such rule the world has ever seen - the North Koreans were almost incapable of any acts of open resistance to authority. Some observers explained this presumed docility by citing the intense brainwashing that allegedly conditioned the North Koreans into a robot-like mental state, while others believed the reason was ingrained terror. At any rate, more or less everybody agreed that an open revolt in North Korea was unthinkable.

Then the unthinkable happened.

This was not exactly an outbreak of revolutionary violence, of course. On March 30, soccer teams from North Korea and Iran were playing a World Cup qualifying match in Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung Stadium before an estimated 50,000 fans. The outcome pretty much would determine whether North Koreans would be able to continue competing for the World Cup, so everything was at stake for them, the robots or terrorized population.

In the middle of the game, there was a heated argument between a North Korean player and a referee. Passions boiled over and Korean defender Nam Song-chol shoved Syrian referee Mohamed Kousa. The player was sent off, as is customary in such situations.

And then the violence erupted. The North Korean fans began to throw bottles, chairs and everything they could find at the Iranian players and referees. It took a few minutes before order was restored while the stadium loudspeakers demanded that fans stay calm.

The game was resumed and the North Korean team eventually lost 2-0, but the violence continued for almost two hours after the match. There were clashes between police and fans, and for a longtime Iranian players could not leave the stadium because of the unruly and outraged crowds outside. Eventually, order was restored, but the Iranian team's coach Branko Ivankovic told Reuters news agency: "We felt our lives were not safe. We tried to get on the bus after the game, but it was not possible. It was a very dangerous situation."

The official Korean Central News Agency described the match and inserted in the official report an unusual sentence: "At the end of the match, all the spectators were angered and vigorously protested the wrong refereeing by the Syrian referee and linesmen."

Meanwhile, Japanese soccer organizations have demanded that North Korean authorities improve security for a coming match with Japan's team. They also expressed concerns about the personal safety of Japanese fans, some of whom are likely to fly to Pyongyang.

As soccer riots go, the Kim Il-sung Stadium incident was definitely a moderate affair. Pyongyang "rioters" were very tame in comparison with like-minded fans in, say, Britain. There is also nothing new in the emergence of soccer hooliganism in a communist country; after all, the first soccer riots in the Soviet Union occurred in the 1970s - and initially they were relatively small-scale affairs, not unlike the violence in the Pyongyang stadium.

However, the violence in Kim Il-sung Stadium has major internal political implications that in the long term are probably far more important than all the justified worries of the Japanese fans. A soccer riot itself is hardly an exceptional event, but it is truly unusual that this time the violence erupted in Pyongyang, where residents for decades could not even think about breaking the public order and disobeying police and soldiers.

Youth gangs have been a part of North Korean society since the 1970s, if not earlier, but those street toughs seldom challenge the authorities - instead they fight with other gangs over territory. But this was very different: for the first time in some 50 years a large group of North Koreans, acting openly and in the presence of foreign journalists and camera crews, dared to challenge the representatives of authority - police and soldiers. For decades, anything like this would result in severe punishment of culprits and their families. In the days of North Korea's founding father Kim Il-sung all people involved would lose the right to dwell in Pyongyang and would be banished to the countryside, while the real or alleged ringleaders would face far more serious punishment.

The soccer violence and defiance of authority once again are a reminder that North Korea has changed - not so much as a result of deliberate reforms, but because of the steady erosion of its once formidable system of social control. Eleven years have passed since the death Kim Il-sung. Despite all attempts to perpetuate the Great Leader's system, the nation's deep economic crisis is gradually undermining North Korea's "national Stalinism". The state economy has ceased to function, so for many years most Koreans have relied on handicraft and small commerce for their survival. In their daily life, they are much less dependent on the will of the Communist Party than they had been for decades. Officials and police apparently have lost much of their zeal as well, so now they are often ready to look the other way, especially when there is an opportunity for a small bribe. The scope of state terror has been reduced and many acts that once would have sent the culprit to an extermination camp now go unpunished, or are only lightly punished. So sooner or later something like the football riot was bound to happen.

Pyongyangites have demonstrated that they are able to fight with police over the outcome of a soccer match. But what will come next? Does this not mean that one day they will react in a similar manner to a sudden price hike, the arrest of a popular personality, or a case of perceived police brutality. Many years ago Alex de Tocqueville wryly observed that a bad government faces the greatest danger not when it is in its worst state but when for whatever reasons it weakens its grip over the people. It seems that the North Korean state is easing or losing its grip, so the unruly crowd in Kim Il-sung Stadium might be yet another a sign of things to come.

At any rate, the assumption that North Koreans will always remain docile has been shown to be very wrong. And this is an assumption on which South Korea's entire "Sunshine Policy" - its embrace of northern brethren - is based. Supporters of the Sunshine Policy, so enthusiastically promoted by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, believe it will be possible to reform North Korea gradually along the same lines as China and Vietnam and avoid its collapse. The supporters of this idea, however, assume that North Koreans will be patiently waiting for decades until their living standards approximate the level of the affluent South Koreans, and only then will unification will take place, in the most pleasant transition. This might be a good idea, but it is based on a postulation - usually implicit - that North Koreans will be unable and/or unwilling to challenge the regime and do what East Germans once did. After that afternoon of March 30 in Pyongyang, all bets are off; this dubious presumption appears even less likely.

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