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Arab Spring is a dress rehearsal for North Korea

Adrian Hong, director of the Pegasus Project, which seeks to spread information in closed societies such as North Korea, talks about Kim Jong-il.

In 2004, Adrian Hong founded Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a non-profit group that carried out advocacy work and smuggled refugees out of the country.

He was jailed in China for 10 days in 2006 for helping refugees escape. He talked to The National yesterday from his New York office.

q How prepared is North Korea for the death of Kim Jong-il?

a The plan for Kim Jong-un's succession has been in motion since Kim Jong-il's stroke in 2008.

For at least three years, North Korea has been preparing for this moment. Kim Jong-un was already a four-star general and vice-chairman of the Central Military Committee. He has now become acting chairman. It will be a very smooth succession. However, any transition does afford an opportunity for instability, domestic or international.

Kim Jong-un went to boarding school in Switzerland and has been exposed to the outside world. Are there any hints he has his own ideas for North Korea that differ from those of his father?

Not so far. It's highly likely they may position him as a superficial reformer to get international pressure to cool, but it's quite difficult for him to make any meaningful changes. The regime has backed itself into a corner that it cannot get out of easily.

From your work with refugees and dissidents, what is your assessment of the condition of the nation he is inheriting?

It's somewhat stable at a low point. However, North Korea has in recent years been building up anticipation for two things - Kim Jong Un's succession and a 2012 "year of prosperity". Accordingly, they have been hoarding resources and requesting aid from allies like China. Expect Kim Jong-un's new authority to be accompanied by gifts of increased rations and goods to North Korean people, so he can take credit.

After meeting and working with refugees, how likely do you think it is that North Korea could have a serious uprising, along the lines of Libya, where you also work, and the countries of the Arab Spring?

I consider the Arab Spring a dress rehearsal for North Korea. But North Korea is a far more lethal, prepared and massive opponent for the people than Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen, in every category: pervasiveness of public security and secret police, size of military and mobilisation, hopelessness and general impoverished and malnourished state of the people.

Do you get the feeling or know that there are internal movements interested in regime change?

There are and have always been but they have been crushed or are in hiding. This month there was a report that armed North Korean soldiers defected to China and disappeared. There are also tens of thousands of refugees in exile who are all invested in change in Pyongyang, many with family left behind or imprisoned in concentration camps.

What are your plans, as an NGO head, for engagement with North Korea in the years ahead? Does the death of Kim Jong-il change anything for you?

Governments and critical agencies have been perpetually unprepared for a potential collapse or instability in North Korea.

This is the time to revisit those plans and make sure they are up to par. The next six months will afford an extraordinary opportunity for dissidents and freedom activists as well to press for change.

How important are the people around King Jong-un on his ascendency to leader of North Korea? Is he prevented by the top leadership from making any changes?

The people around him are critical - they afford him the loyalty of various sectors within the regime and ensure that, while he centralises his authority, he gets some cover.

But I will make this clear, it is highly unlikely any North Korean leader would ever press for reforms. They have gone too far - public executions, mass concentration camps, systematically starving segments of disloyal individuals.

North Korea is the International Criminal Court's dream. They know any opening with reforms would also mean an opening to crimes against humanity charges on a staggering scale, domestically and internationally.

They have also seen what happened to Ben Ali, Mubarak and especially Gaddafi this year.


Updated: December 20, 2011 04:00 AM

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