CAIRO — It seems naive to hope the fallout from cataclysmic events in the Middle East and North Africa can spill beyond the region and stir distant, repressed populations with no cultural or historical affinity. Yet successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have captivated dissidents and activists around the world who have campaigned in vain for radical change, in some cases for decades.
This week, South Korean activists even hoisted helium balloons into the air and watched them drift into North Korea with a message attached: discard your leaders, just as the Egyptians did.
"The Egyptian people rose up in a revolution to topple a 30-year dictatorship," said one of the leaflets coasting over the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas. "The North Koreans too must revolt against a 60-year-old dictatorship."
The strain of poverty and inefficient government in North Korea, which has been targeted by international sanctions, matches or exceeds that of Arab autocracies currently buffeted by street protests. Its human rights record, along with those of Myanmar and Zimbabwe, is routinely condemned in international forums.
But there are no clear signs that these countries will face the same kind of upheaval sweeping Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere.
"Everything depends on local conditions," said Charles Ries, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based RAND Corp. who recently oversaw economic issues while stationed at the American Embassy in Baghdad.
North Korea, after all, has a cult-like leadership rooted in its World War II-era separation from the south; Myanmar brutally stamped out revolts in 1988 and 2007; and Zimbabwe has a shaky coalition government and plans elections later this year.
Dissidents and authoritarian governments on other continents are undoubtedly reviewing the playbook of their counterparts in the Middle East — social media networking for the protesters, and hasty reform pledges and thugs in civilian clothes for the leaders. Unrest even spread to Djibouti, a city-state across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, where protesters reportedly clashed with security forces on Friday.
Fear of bloody retaliation, sharp curbs on information, tactical decisions to avoid a showdown and the lack of a trigger — severe food shortages or a fuel price hike, for example — are deterrents to popular revolt in repressive systems.
Protesters in Egypt and the region used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to organize, and benefited from pan-Arab media outlets such as Al-Jazeera television that spread word of the uprisings.
But there is no sign of an organized opposition in North Korea, where most people do not have access to outside TV and radio, or the Internet. The leadership had long-standing ties to ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. On Jan. 23, two days before protests broke out in Egypt, ruler Kim Jong Il, who rarely meets foreigners, hosted the head of Cairo-based Orascom Telecom, which built a 3G telephone service network in North Korea.
Dissidents in military-ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma, want to know more about what happened in Egypt despite a state media blackout.
"Everyone is trying to find out information and is interested," said Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK, which is based in London. Dissidents are "talking about whether they can learn anything from this, and what examples there are," he said.
However, Farmaner said there no signs that anti-government groups want to try a revolt similar to the 18-day uprising in Egypt, where a military council took power and promised to oversee a democratic transition. The military sided with protesters in pushing out Mubarak.
In Myanmar, "the army has always been prepared to shoot when it's ordered to," Farmaner said. "There's no separation of president and military in any way."
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