By Jackson Richman
For the first time in several years, Iranians have taken to the streets over the past week to protest their regime’s lackluster economic situation, with rural protesters angry over drought conditions, and its abuse of using sanctions relief from the 2015 nuclear deal to fund anywhere but inside the country’s crumbling infrastructure and other societal aspects.
Meanwhile, North Korea, another regime with a “nuclear button” that also oppresses its people, has not seriously experienced nor dealt with protests.
What is the difference among the oppressed citizenry in both totalitarian states?
One reason is the police state in North Korea is greater than the one in Iran. “Simply put, the regime in North Korea exercises more extensive control over the social and political life of its citizens than in Iran and expressions of political dissent in North Korean society are not tolerated,” Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The National Discourse. “A public protest in Pyongyang will get you and your family sent to a prison camp in the countryside.”
Nicholas Eberstadt, a founding board member of the U.S. Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, expanded on Snyder’s sentiment. “The North Korean political system is so repressive that it makes the Iranian political system look like Davos,” he told the Discourse, referring to the the Swiss town where the annual World Economic Forum meeting is held.
He added that North Korea has “multiple police systems” that “constantly surveil the population.”
Eberstadt mentioned the North Korean social construct called the “songbun.” It is a caste system that determines whether a citizen can be trusted with certain duties, and which individuals get certain jobs, among other statuses.
Iran, while a clerical regime, does not have predetermined social classes.
Regarding how North Korea specifically monitors its people, American Enterprise Institute research fellow Mike Mazza said, “The state attempts to exercise strict control over the population–neighbors spy on neighbors, family spies on family.”
“Punishments for transgressions are, in some cases, applied to multiple generations of a family and are not limited to the ‘guilty’ individual,” he added. “Opportunities for protests–and more importantly, for protesters to organize and for protests to spread–are far more limited than in Iran and, also unlike Iran, can also be largely dealt with behind closed doors.”
Another explanation is the contrast in terms of being restricted to accessing information.
“North Korea has much less in the way of communication with the outside world than Iran has,” Eberstadt said. “And there really would be no opportunity for a gathering of protesters in the DPRK.”
“I think the only type of popular protest we’ve seen there since 1948 [was when there was a] currency reform about a decade ago and some of the market women were cursing out soldiers,” Eberstadt, currently a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute, added. “But that’s it.”
Similar to the 2010 Arab Spring, social media has played a crucial role in the Iranian protests. On Tuesday, despite banning access to Twitter and Facebook since 2009, Iranian authorities further restricted access to other sites like Instagram and Telegram, a widely-used online messaging platform in the regime.
In North Korea, social media is almost nonexistent. “The only authorized presence on Twitter that I’m aware of for DPRK is a couple of different government authorities and spokespersons,” Eberstadt said.
“There is no civil society in North Korea,” he added. “There is a certain amount of a private enterprise” there, but it is nowhere near to what Iran has.
Eberstadt continued, “I make that comparison advisedly because Iran is not exactly what we call an open society.”
Eberstadt remarked that North Korea is the “closest approximation of totalitarianism operating on the planet today. It’s got Iran beat in any number of categories,” like intellectual expression and private discussion “by a long shot.”
Overall, as long as a state is a bit open, there is a glimmer of hope. “The more communication, the more information,” Eberstadt said. “The more contact with the outside world, the better.”
While there may be a bit of access to a web of information in Iran, North Korea has cut itself off from the rest of the world. To open communication in the hermit kingdom world be “easier said than done because the regime in Pyongyang has figured out that one as well,” in giving its citizens no access to the outside.