South Korea's National Intelligence Service said Wednesday that North Korea has been importing a large quantity of riot equipment, such as tear gas, helmets and shields, from China.
At a meeting of the National Assembly's National Intelligence Committee, the spy agency confirmed media reports that the North had imported the equipment, displaying photos of helmets and bulletproof vests. The news that Pyongyang has set up a special unit for suppressing riots is also unnerving.
These signs suggest that discontent is growing among North Koreans over the instability of their government and the communist regime under the 66-year rule of founder Kim Il Sung's family.
Under North Korea's politics of fear, criticizing the communist regime is tantamount to risking one's life. But the fact that the authorities are bracing for demonstrations and riots appears to show that the patience of the Stalinist country's people has reached a limit. Discontent, often spurred by people's wish to secure their livelihoods, has become worse since the North's failed currency reform of late 2009.
When hundreds of North Koreans protested the beating of a merchant into a coma by a public security official, Pyongyang deployed military personnel to disperse the demonstrators. On Feb. 14 in Jongju and Yongchon, North Pyongan Province, dozens of North Koreans demanded electricity and rice two days before the birthday of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Kim Jong Il's inner circle have taken note of the protests in North Africa and the Middle East demanding regime change. Pyongyang seems to have founded the special unit and introduced riot gear because even the smallest protest by residents, if left alone, could spread like wildfire.
The special unit is known to patrol markets and other public places to prevent protests. The North is also blocking the use of mobile phones to stop the spread of pro-democracy movements and strengthening the monitoring of disgruntled groups.
To soothe public sentiment, the North must act urgently to feed its people. Global Zero, an international anti-nuclear organization, has estimated the cost of the North's nuclear weapons development at $700 million. If the North decides to spend that money on its people, it can buy 1 million tons of rice. If Pyongyang begins to fire tear gas at residents who rise up for food, this will signal the end of the communist regime.
--Dong-A Ilbo editorial, June 22
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Dong-A Ilbo is a leading South Korean daily.