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."
The officer came upon a leaflet in 1997 that described how Koreans across the Demilitarized Zone lived. "I became sharply aware of this contradiction," he says.
It took him nine days to travel the roughly 120 miles from the capital Pyongyang to Sinuiju in northwestern North Korea on the border with China. There, he saw across the river what life could actually be like. He lived in Sinuiju for four years before he was finally able to bribe a border guard with food to let him swim across the river into China's Jilin province.
North Korea eventually staggered out of the crisis in the late 1990s due largely to food imports from the U.S., China and South Korea, but not before the average citizen learned how to take care of himself. Black markets became a commonplace solution to finding food, medicine and other necessities, and remain a commonly used tool today.
Through these channels, and some newly established legitimate trade with China, North Koreans see more of the world around them.
"They're getting more and more information about the outside world, especially DVDs of dramas of South Korea that show how wealthy the country is, or thumb drives with material on them, much coming from China," says David Straub, associate director of the Korean Studies Program at Stanford University. This amounts to more and more anecdotal information proving the leadership has been lying to its citizenry, he says.
"It's not possible to predict the outcome," he says. "We're some time from a tipping point, but the trends are not good if you're a North Korean leader."
The response from North Koreans will not likely include a popular revolution, the defector says. The regime maintains strict social and physical control and there are already signs of that strengthening. A "broker" or fixer used to charge $30 U.S. dollars to arrange a border crossing in 2000, when this officer left North Korea. Today that costs $5,000.
What is more likely, he says, is violence between the privileged and those who are hungry.
Stanford's Armstrong doubts the U.S. or other allies would get involved in any infighting within North Korea, unless it escalated to extreme levels and involved the military. Violent protests occur in China regularly, he adds, but that has done little to weaken the communist government there.
"It would have to be something pretty big. It would have to be a real breakdown of social or political order," he says. "If there were conflict between factions in the military, then intervention might be possible."
The United States has sent ships bearing tactical nuclear weapons to the region to participate in Foal Eagle Exercise 2013 in tandem with South Korea, however a Pentagon spokeswoman says the increased U.S. Navy presence is unrelated to North Korea's recent threats.