Why Has There Been No People’s Power Rebellion in North Korea?

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One scenario put forward by researchers, political commentators and journalists for the collapse of North Korea has been a People’s Power (or popular) rebellion. This paper analyses why no popular rebellion has occurred in the DPRK under Kim Jong-un. It challenges the assumption that popular rebellion would happen because of widespread anger caused by a greater awareness of superior economic conditions outside the DPRK. Using Jack Goldstone’s theoretical explanations for the outbreak of popular rebellion, and comparisons with the 1989 Romanian and 2010-11 Tunisian transitions, this paper argues that marketization has led to a loosening of state ideological control and to an influx of information about conditions in the outside world. However, unlike the Tunisian transitions, in which a new information context shaped by social media, the al-Jazeera network and an experience of protest helped create a sense of pan-Arab solidarity amongst Tunisians resisting their government, there has been no similar ideology unifying North Koreans against their regime. There is evidence of discontent in market unrest in the DPRK between 2011 and the present, although protests have mostly been in defence of the right of people to support themselves through private trade. North Koreans believe this right has been guaranteed, or at least tacitly condoned, by the Kim Jong-un government. There has not been any large-scale explosion of popular anger because the state has not attempted to crush market activities outright under Kim Jong-un. There are other reasons why no popular rebellion has occurred in the North. Unlike Tunisia, the DPRK lacks a dissident political elite capable of leading an opposition movement, and unlike Romania, the DPRK authorities have shown some flexibility over anti-dissent strategies, taking a more tolerant approach to protests against economic issues. Reduced levels of violence during periods of unrest and an effective system of information control may have helped restrict the expansion of unrest beyond rural areas.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1
Pages (from-to)1-34
Number of pages34
JournalEuropean Journal of Korean Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018


  • North Korea, popular rebellion, marketization, unrest

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