Disappearing dictatorships - could North Korea follow?

North Korea leader Kim Jong Il, left, walks by his son Kim Jong Un on the balcony as they attend a massive military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, 10 October 2010 The total control by North Korea's leaders ensures that news of the unrest in the Arab world is not likely to reach their citizens.

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It has swept across the other side of the world, starting on 17 December when an angry, unemployed man set fire to himself after police stopped him selling vegetables on the streets.

First Tunisia. Then Egypt. And Iran, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco and now - most bloodily, it is feared - Libya. Revolution in some; protests or civil uprisings in others.

Characteristics common to many of those countries include autocratic leaders who have held power for decades; political repression; and the harsh economic reality for millions of people who must feed a family with either no job or one that pays very little, while a privileged elite lives in luxury.

And that is a pretty accurate description of North Korea too. So could the upheaval of the old orders spread more than 5,000 miles to this secretive, totalitarian state?

Dynastic domination

North Korea is dominated by the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, who inherited the role from his father, Kim Il-sung, who is still revered as the Eternal President. The next generation of the Kim family is even now being groomed to take this dynasty into its sixth decade.

Dissent is not tolerated. The tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of political prisoners thought to be languishing in prison camps are testament to that.

And, except the military and the hierarchy of the Workers Party, most people struggle to put food on the table.

North Korean propaganda village of Gijungdong, seen from South Korea's Taesungdong freedom village, 16 February 2011 As good as it gets: this is the North Korean propaganda village of Gijungdong

Tales of people scavenging for weeds to cook when shortages are most acute are not an exaggeration, according to those who have escaped.

The World Food Programme is currently there assessing the situation today.

So you might think North Korea is ripe for revolution. But could it happen?

Today one newspaper in South Korea quoted sources from the North saying small pockets of unrest are appearing there. Scores of people fashioned makeshift megaphones, it wrote, and shouted demands for rice and electricity.

Control of communications

And a Japanese news agency suggests that the Pyongyang government has suspended the rental of mobile phones by the few foreign visitors for fear of information about the Middle East uprisings seeping into this secretive state.

With so little information coming out of North Korea, it is almost impossible to verify these reports. But an uprising along the lines of some Arab countries in North Korea? Unlikely.

"I believe the North Korean people have yet to learn of the facts," says Hyun In-taek, the South Korean minister with lead responsibility for relations with the North, referring to recent events in the Middle East.

"The North's television does not report on them and the people can't use the Internet."

No Facebook forums for protesters. No Al Jazeera rolling news showing compelling images of street protests as country after country convulses in a broad domino effect.

Instead, North Korean state TV broadcasts martial music, diatribes against the West and details of Mr Kim's latest visit to a factory or farm.

South Korean activists release huge balloons carrying anti-North Korea leaflets at Imjingak peace park in Paju near the heavily fortified frontier on 16 February 2011 Some South Koreans use balloons to send messages to those in the north

But there are leakages, with some North Koreans crossing illegally back and forth over the border with China, and the illegal reception of some foreign TV and radio - a risky business in itself.

Opponents of the regime based here in South Korea regularly launch balloons near the heavily fortified border which scatter anti-Kim propaganda as they float into the skies above the North. Although any North Koreans caught in possession of such material face severe punishment.

Defying predictions

In a country which has for years relied on citizens informing on each other, it would be a brave - perhaps reckless - person who attempted to spread word of the protests in the Arab world, or even try to replicate them in North Korea.

It has the largest number of military personnel per head of population in the world. So, as we have seen in many Middle Eastern countries, their loyalty to Kim would be key.

There are reports that even they may be starting to go hungry as food supplies are depleted.

But is this debate fantasy or reality?

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, various experts on the North have been predicting it would collapse. It has not.

At present there are no signs that what is happening across North Africa and the Middle East makes that any more likely.

Repressive their old regimes may be - or have been - but not as bad as North Korea's.

And yet just months ago, predictions of uprisings throughout the Arab world might have seemed far-fetched to many.

So, not fantasy perhaps. But still very unlikely.

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