REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– Worried they might return with provocative tales of a populist uprising that just toppled another Middle East dictator, strongman Kim Jong Il has issued a decree to North Koreans in Libya –- don’t bother coming home.
The ban was an effort to prevent word of the often-violent Arab uprisings from reaching the isolated regime, illustrating Kim’s concern about potential social unrest at home inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions, according to stories published in the South Korean press.
The move has left an estimated 200 North Koreans stranded as country-less orphans. They include doctors, nurses and construction workers sent to Libya to bring hard currency back to their impoverished country, which many say is experiencing food shortages as winter looms.
A global pariah who suffers from numerous U.N.-sanctioned boycotts, Kim is left to search for nations that dare to ignore international consensus and conduct trade that allows the regime to continue its missile and nuclear programs. Therefore, Kim maintained close ties with Moammar Kadafi's regime before its collapse.
According to reports, North Korea has remained silent on Kadafi’s death and refuses to recognize Libya's rebel-led National Transitional Council as the nation’s legitimate governing authority. The death leaves Kim among a diminished set of iron-fisted rulers worldwide.
North Korea has also issued no-return bans to its officials in Tunisia and Egypt, which have also experienced populist anti-government uprisings, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
North Korean defectors continue to hammer away at Kim's fortress of silence, sending helium balloons into the nation from South Korea with pamphlets criticizing Kim’s regime. It’s not clear whether any of the activists plan to send notices of the series of Arab Spring revolts.
Many consider an uprising against Kim a far-fetched dream. Like Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early '70s, the North Korean leader controls his subjects by a cult of personality that calls for God-like obedience.
North Korea is also intolerant of dissent and tightly controls any information spread within and across its borders.
But some South Korean bloggers hold out hope for Kim's demise.
"Of course the North Korean citizens in Libya will talk about the demonstration and things they saw," one wrote in a posting. "But stopping them from returning home is not going to stop the spread of suspicion, disturbance and dissatisfaction within North Korea."
A recent editorial in the Seoul-based Korean Herald newspaper estimated that less than 1% of North Koreans are aware of the African uprising: all of them top-level party and administration officials with access to satellite television, as well as the few allowed to travel to China on business.
“Pyongyang’s silence about the fall of the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and the bloody death of Gadhafi reveals Kim Jong-il’s awareness of the vulnerability of his regime in the process of a third-generation dynastic succession of power,” the editorial said.
“Despite their boasting of the perfect loyalty of the 23 million people to the party and its leader, the ruling elite are afraid of what effect the information on the fates of overseas dictatorships will have on the oppressed people of the country.”
Facing food shortages and ongoing international pressure, Kim’s time to step down will come sooner or later, the newspaper predicted.
“Violent demonstrations are raging in two Middle East nations and it is a matter of time before the North Korean people reach the limit of their endurance of hunger and repression and rise up against the Kim rule,” the editorial concluded.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il talks during a meeting with the European Union delegation in Pyongyang in May 2001. Credit: Chien-Min Chung / Reuters