Thoughts on the Great North Korean Rebellion

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North Korea / North Korean border region

Recent posts by Joshua Stanton at One Free Korea prompted me to do some thinking about the prospects of a “hard landing” for North Korea, or the notion that somehow popular discontent leads to an anti-regime upheaval.

It seems likely that the 150-day campaign, which may have been meant to provide at least minimal claims of achievement for a (now-in-remission) move to crown a successor, could backfire badly. At the same time, there appears to be no apparent “tipping point” at which the society overturns itself and the state security (although grumbling itself) remains firmly in control. So even though bad news for the regime, it’s difficult to say if these isolated instances of rebellion add up to much in the long term.

The workers in the rural coal mines I saw last month up on the upper reaches of the Tumen river north of Changbai/Hyesan did not appear too happy, but then again, there were all those nice KPA keeping active in the area to keep out foreign spies and make sure people don’t just abandon their posts. No one in North Korea seems to complain about overwork for its own sake, but when various elites are the only ones seen to profit without changes in food ration for the workers, then we have a violation of the DPRK social compact.

Good Friends Korea reports on an incident in the Yodok labor camp.  It doesn’t add up to a rebellion, but it does indicate something more systemic: weary authorities getting sloppy and self-interested, leading to a touch of chaos:

Explosion at Gasoline Storage Inside Yoduk Prison

In early June a big explosion occurred at the gasoline storage inside Yoduk County prison. At the time prison people were unloading the gasoline transported from oil production facility in Baekma County, North Pyongan Province. The gasoline was transported in about 60 drums carried by regular trucks rather than in a tanker truck. The Support Bureau employees were all gone for the day when the gasoline arrived late at night. So, they mobilized 5 prison inmates for the work. Even though they summoned the inmates in cooperation with the correctional officer who was on night duty it was a violation of the prison rule. The accident occurred when the work was almost over. A gasoline drum exploded all of a sudden and other gasoline drums got on fire one after another and exploded, turning the whole place into an inferno in no time. Two inmates died because of fire and two other inmates were shot to death by correction officers. The receiving employee at the scene and the correctional officer on night duty were in coma with 3rd degree burn in the whole body, but the receiving employee died soon after.

Two Support Bureau freight trucks burned completely and twenty-two tons of whole corn harvested last year was damaged because of the accident. The correctional officer, who barely survived the accident, is going to be executed. The prison authorities alleged that the eldest inmates (age 56) among the chosen five spilled a large amount of gasoline and ignited the fire. He is an inmate in solitary confinement and he committed arson because of depression and vengeance after repeated extensions of his sentence. The police reported that he set the fire on purpose to commit a suicide as he thought he wouldn’t be able to get released from the prison. According to the witnesses, while moving the gasoline drums to the storage the arsonist hit the drums with a hammer as if he tried to make sparks. One of the witnesses said, “When people tried to stop him there was a spark and fire erupted. The correctional officer shot him with a gun, but the gasoline spill on the floor got on fire and spread to other drums. They closed the door of the storage right away when the fire broke out. However, fire erupted with an explosion. The fire was extinguished barely by blocking the entrance of the tunnel with a storage tank and by putting soil on top. Fortunately, it rained a lot that night.”


In the mean time, the National Security Agency emphasized that the control on the inmates will be further reinforced in prisons around the country and the prison rules to be observed more strictly. At the same time, they will dispatch inspection teams to each prison in order to check on the status of prison management and operation.”

In interests of understanding how various combustible elements in North Korean society combine to actually produce a rebellion, I would recommend my recent Journal of Korean Studies article on the Sinuiju Incident/”counterrevolutionary rebellion” of November 1945. According to the journal reviewers and my own research, the article is the only extensive treatment of this episode in any language (the rebellion merits four pages in Charles Armstrong’s indispensable 2003 book “The North Korean Revolution,” gets a couple of sentences from Cumings in two of his books; failings with the South Korean scholarship are discussed in the article itself).

It just seems that if people like Stanton or the more powerful anti-communist scion Dana Rohrbacher are going to postulate the Great North Korean Rebellion, it might be a good idea to examine how and why one flamed up and out, at least once, in the DPRK’s murky past.

The Author

Lecturer of Chinese history at University of Leeds, and Editor-in-Chief of SinoNK.com.

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