North Korea has reached a critical juncture as generations of citizens living under oppressive rule receive unprecedented access to information on how their lives should be better.
A former North Korean military officer who successfully fled from the totalitarian communist nation tells US News there is a rising sentiment of insurgency, as more and more of his countrymen learn that they don't have to accept the abject poverty and brutal living conditions surrounding them.
A sharp rise in war rhetoric from the inexperienced and impatient Kim Jong Un may convert his threats of war abroad into violence at home.
"This kind of war will act as a catalyst among North Korean people," says this officer, who asked that his identity and occupation in the U.S. be withheld citing security concerns for his family in North Korea.
"If there was a start to war, I expect huge internal division—people against other people. It's not a war against North Korea, the United States [or] South Korea. It's a war against its own people," he said, speaking through a translator.
The North Korean regime's control over its people appears strong from the outside, he says. But inside, citizens are waiting for the beginning of another war so they can "vent their own anger to those people they want to get revenge against." This includes policemen who enforce the regime's strict social rules, or neighbors who may have fared better than those who face mass starvation or prison camps.
This thirst for change has come to a head under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, believed to be in his late 20s. The impertinent son of Kim Jong Il does not weigh the losses and gains of his decisions, the officer says, unlike his father who adopted a much more sophisticated awareness of long term effects.
Kim the younger recently insisted on the construction of 12 apartment buildings within a year in Pyongyang and forced thousands of soldiers to do the work in place of using heavy equipment. He also forced the continued construction of a hydroelectric plant in two years, instead of the proscribed 10, which is rife with leaks and malfunctions. According to some reports, this caused the death of his father.
North Korea watchers agree that some sort of shift appears to be on the way. Since the establishment of the regime under Kim Il Sung in the 1940s, the communist nation has forcibly mobilized its citizens for a potential war.
"This time it's at a very high pitch," says Charles Armstrong, a professor and director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. "There is a growing divide between the have and the have-nots," he says. "It's hard to predict whether that would turn into violence. It could, but I think it's also the case if nothing dramatic happens, and North Korea continues the way it's going, there will be more and more of this social change."
The digital age has made it almost impossible for the North Korean regime to keep all outside information out of the hands of its citizens. Times of high tension and low resources in the country have historically made its people more willing to accept the notion that living conditions must be better.
The North Korean officer who spoke with US News had his own moment of dawning comprehension during the massive famine that crippled the country in the mid 1990s. As many as 3 million North Koreans or more died of starvation brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the aid it provided, and the newly minted North Korean "great leader" Kim Jong Il's unwillingness to cast aside nuclear and military ambitions.
"Even those dying from starvation, even that kind of very tragic situation, they said 'I'm worried about Kim Jong Il, the leader. His health. His safety," he says of the "brainwashing" inherent in North Korean culture. "I don't care about my death."