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Pivotal Power

June 22, 2009
Iran v. North Korea, on and off the field

Iran and North Korea squared off on the soccer field.

Iran and North Korea played a World Cup soccer match a few weeks ago. Here they were, two of the governments most hostile to the United States, squaring off!

While I’ve often thought about how similar Washington’s quandaries over North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs are (for one, the critical role of China in both), I have, over the past ten days, been struck about how the regimes are also so different. For all of its brutality, the Iranian government has not insulated the country completely from outside information. There is massive censorship, but citizens do have access to satellite TV and to the Internet. Tehran has made the same calculation as Beijing — that modern technology is necessary for economic growth, and that it can be controlled.

Not so in North Korea. The massive protests in Tehran are unimaginable at this stage in the DPRK, which is going through its own leadership succession. North Koreans, but for the government elite, have no access at all to the Internet — only a state-run Intranet with no foreign Web sites. There is no other free media whatsoever, and those caught listening to foreign broadcasts are severely punished. The regime’s degree of control over its population is extreme.

In Iran, the religious leadership sits above the president, who is theoretically elected by the people. In North Korea, the Dear Leader is himself divine. Instead of an election, even a sham election, Kim Jung Il has designated his youngest son to succeed him. Most North Koreans don’t know that other countries select their leaders in any other way — time stopped for them in the 1950s.

These differences between the two regimes are significant because mature democracies take a long time to evolve. Voting for one’s leaders, even if the results are tossed, gives citizens a taste of what real democracy is like, and they won’t be starting from complete scratch, like the North Koreans, when their elections eventually are free. And a taste of freedom can itself lead to demands for more.

North Korea won the soccer match. And they are winning the game of subjugating their people. But that game won’t last forever.

– Nina Hachigian

Photo courtesy of Flickr user michaelgoodin under a Creative Commons license.

For more, view our Voices of Iran extended coverage page and listen to our online radio show on Baha’i faith and modern Iran.

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Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of “The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise.” She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

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