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[liberationtech] Kim Jong Il dies: Is there hope for social media in North Korea?

Yosem Companys companys at
Mon Dec 19 14:04:02 PST 2011

Interesting piece today in the WaPost about social media & North Korea that
interviews our Liberationtech friend and Stanford alumnus Ramesh Srinivasan


Posted at 03:30 PM ET, 12/19/2011 Kim Jong Il dies: Is there hope for
social media in North Korea?
By Emi Kolawole<>


*View Photo Gallery*: Following the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong
Il, the isolationist state will try to pass power to Kim’s youngest son,
Kim Jong Eun, who is in his 20s.

 Kim Jong Il died
leaving the totalitarian-led and poverty-stricken nation of North Korea in
public mourning<>.
But what about in private, especially online — assuming anyone in the
country is active on the Web outside of state-run media?

I spoke with University of California at Los Angeles Department of
Information Studies Assistant Professor Ramesh
(@rameshmedia <>) about what effect, if
any, social media could have on breaking down the totalitarian regime and
promoting democratic change. Srinivasan is an expert on the role of social
media during the Arab Spring, which quickly turned into the Arab fall and
winter — a revolutionary cascade that took down regimes in Egypt, Tunisia
and Libya and continues to threaten others.

“North Korea is one of the unique countries in the world because virtually
every computer or technology that could be used for some social media
application is regulated by the government,” said Srinivasan. This is
unlike China, which allows its citizens access to technology but approaches
media censorship at the Internet protocol level.

“The North Korean censorship approach runs all the way down to the level of
hardware,” Srinivasan said — an approach made easier by the country’s size.
The smaller the country, the easier it is to control who has access to
resources, ranging from food and water to technology.

But with Kim Jong Il’s death, there is an opportunity, however small, for
cracks to emerge in the regime, giving people greater opportunity to gain
access to previously banned technologies. “Often, when particularly strong
leaders collapse,” Srinivasan said, “there’s a moment of transition or
pause where the new regime has to establish itself.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died Saturday, state-run media confirmed.
(Korea News Service)According to Srinivasan, this could mean one of two

1) The new regime decides to take on a pragmatic, conciliatory approach
toward the international community. “Kim Jong Il in the last several months
was extending small olive branches to the rest of the world,” Srinivasan
said. This could allow for greater access to technology and social media.
Srinivasan cited a similar step taken by Kyrgyzstan in 2005, when the
country desperately needed foreign aid. Billionaire investor George Soros
and the U.S. State Department helped build inroads with the government, and
“as a result, the blogosphere emerged in Kyrgyzstan in 2005,” said
Srinivasan, who studied there prior to its revolution of 2010. “The
question is whether that story will repeat itself.”

2) “Even if on a purposeful level the new regime and the new leaders are
not interested in being conciliatory, a vacuum could exist,” Srinivasan
said. “That’s an opportunity for a variety of other influences or low-level
diplomatic channels to emerge.” Part of that reaching-out process may
include various types of social media outside North Korea. “A vacuum may
allow activists potentially within the country to reach out to the outer
world,” he said. “It may not be the government that takes the initiative,
but instead underground factions within North Korea who reach out to the
rest of the world. This may influence the establishment of social networks
with other parts of the world.”

Kim Jong Eun, the youngest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, applauds
during a military parade. (Petar Kujundzic - Reuters)Another possibility is
that the fear of an even more brutal ruler could inspire North Korea’s
people to stage an uprising in the digital world. “Sometimes what happens
in these situations is the new guy comes in and, in his decision to set an
example, he could be even more brutal than the previous regime. And to some
extent, that it what was feared by the people in Egypt,” Srinivasan said.
“One of the reasons people in Egypt told me they were willing to go for it
in Tahrir Square, is because Gamal Mubarak, [ousted president] Hosni
Mubarak’s son, was hated even more by the populace than Hosni and was
feared for his corruption and brutality. So, sometimes it creates a lot of
urgency for activists to find ways to act out, if these people exist in
North Korea. Social media could be at the center of these possibilities.”

But how could that happen in a country where access to computers is
families most loyal to the regime? “It’s certainly not a North Korean
liberation movement that would create a group on Facebook like we saw in
Tunisia and Egypt,” Srinivasan said. “My sense is that this would happen in
the back-channel blogosphere, back-channel chat groups, back-channel fora.”

This is a very different environment than in Egypt, where the Facebook
groups supporting the Egyptian movement are and were created and supported
within Egypt. “I think we’re going to see sometimes humorous groups and
activity on Twitter and Facebook supporting and speculating on North Korean
democracy,” Srinivasan said.

“It’s extremely interesting because North Korea and Cuba, to a lesser
extent, are great examples of how the presence of the Internet may not mean
the end of gated walls. It debunks the mistaken assumption that the
Internet’s presence alone will flatten and democratize,” Srinivasan said.
“Instead, this is all dependent on whether regimes can independently fight
or subvert social media for their own aims.”

North Koreans cry after learning death of their leader Kim Jong Il in
Pyongyang, North Korea. (Kyodo News - Associated Press)For those eager to
take advantage of the transition to begin a potential democracy movement,
Srinivasan recommends reading up on the small repository of information
available on North Korea. He also recommends that the handful of
individuals with contacts in the region begin reaching out to try to
understand what, if any, opposition movements are underway.

And, of course, there’s always China.

“This is a time to jump on China for diplomats, activists and civil society
organizations,” Srinivasan said. “China is going to have a huge role to
play in what’s going to happen. I’m sure, as we speak, Kim Jong Il’s son is
probably in contact with Chinese advisers. So this might be an opportunity
to hold some leverage with China.”

“The ability to extract a liberalized Internet for citizens is not
trivial,” Srinivasan said. “It’s a pretty exciting time.”
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