Could North Korea's Grip Be Slipping?

Voters sabotaged posters promoting Kim Jong Un and Koreans abroad are starting to talk.

Kim Jong Un as a child (Reuters)
Still from a video broadcast by North Korea TV, showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a child. April 21, 2014 (Reuters) Reuters

Could the Leader's grip be slipping? Nobody outside North Korea actually knows, given the dearth of news – let alone reliable news – coming from the isolated dictatorship, where even the precise age of Kim Jong Un is a matter of speculation. But reports of unrest are mounting.

Of course, last month brought mounting reports that Kim Jong Un demanded all North Korean men ape his hairstyle, which is apparently not true. But The Guardian reports that despite harsh penalties for behaving outside the box, the younger generation is indeed getting feisty, and may even be thinking treasonous thoughts, not to mention sabotaging state propaganda.

At least, young North Koreans working in China spoke rather frankly to The Guardian's reporter in China, saying things that Pyongyang considers treasonous. Such as, life in North Korea isn't better than elsewhere and claiming that the lies are clear and "everyone is angry".

As for unrest, it's one thing to grouse to the Guardian from refuge in China. It's another thing to mouth off at home – but perhaps a sign of the times is vandalized posters promoting the candidate Kim Jong-un at polling stations ahead of general elections last month. The sabotage forced the government to place the polling stations under guard. Of course, he's the only candidate. And he won hands-down, and was formally named the chairman of the national defense commission, which is the militarized country's highest office. But still.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang isn't making any more friends by rattling its nukes. Escalating activity in recent weeks triggered suspicion that North Korea is gearing up to hold its fourth test of its nuclear weapons technology right when U.S. President Barak Obama is due to visit Asia.

Warnings from an unnerved Seoul prompted the U.S. on Tuesday to suggest that North Korea "refrain from actions that threaten regional peace". Meanwhile, a think tank analyzing the satellite imagery of North Korea's actions concluded that while activity at the Punggye-ri site had accelerated, a test right now isn't that likely after all.

"Recent operations at Punggye-ri have not reached the high level of intensity - in terms of vehicle, personnel and equipment movement - that occurred in the weeks prior to past detonations," said 38North, which is part of Johns Hopkins University. Work at the site is seasonal and often picks up in the Korean spring, the think tank added.

To be sure, Pyongyang isn't thrilled about Obama's trip to South Korea and Japan, on Monday denouncing the "reckless" idea. The visit "is a reactionary and dangerous one as it is aimed at escalating confrontation and bringing dark clouds of a nuclear arms race" to shadow the unstable region, North Korea said - and showed baby pictures of the leader Kim, in various militarized poses, on state television.