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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
From the execution of Jang Song Thaek last December to the death of Kim Jong Il two years prior, it’s safe to say that the past few years have witnessed some of the most significant changes in North Korea in decades. But while rumors about Kim Jong Il’s poor health had been swirling since 2008, the rapid purge and execution of Jang Song Thaek showed just how unpredictable events in North Korea can be.
But of course, beyond these major stories broken by North Korean state media, other events and phenomena have occurred that could also have significant impact in the future. From the rise and acceptance of the market economy,to the spread of cell phone technology, to an increasingly affluent middle class, a number of bottom-up changes are occurring in North Korea that could one day have game-changing ramifications.
For the final article in our defector survey, we therefore asked our panel of eleven refugees to tell us what the biggest surprise has been in the way North Korea has developed since they left the country. While many of the responses echo observations made by long-time North Korea watchers such as Andrei Lankov and Victor Cha, some of the refugee respondents were very vocal about pointing out that there had been little, if any, meaningful changes worth talking about.
I watched a documentary about North Korea on KBS (a major South Korean broadcasting service) in February. Throughout the documentary, the narrator kept saying that there have been many changes in North Korea in recent years. But in my opinion, the country hasn’t changed a bit.
It was ludicrous for the narrator to say that changes have come in North Korea. Actually, the only change in North Korea is that there’s an even greater economic gap between the haves and have-nots.
The economic gap between rich and poor wasn’t that bad when I was in North Korea. If you had one million dollars, you’d be considered one of the richest people in the country. But now most party officials and traders who are abroad have at least 10 million dollars. Despite these new riches, the have-nots are still suffering from abject poverty and there’s a growing number of kotchebi (꽃제비 – homeless children).
“Don’t you dare to say that change has come in North Korea. That is what this defector would like to yell at the entire world”
It ached my heart to see a poverty-stricken North Korea on the documentary and I wanted to tell the producers that actually nothing has changed in North Korea. Change is never possible in North Korea. As long as Kim Jong Un’s family is in power, it is an undeniable truth that there’ll be no change ever in North Korea.
Don’t you dare to say that change has come in North Korea. That is what this defector would like to yell at the entire world.
The execution of Jang Song Thaek was the biggest shock for me. Since the succession of Kim Jung Un from his father, many new terms have entered the North Korean vocabulary. Two of them are “It feels like a feudal age” and “The big king”.
For North Koreans the reference to a “feudal age” usually means the Chosun dynasty, which was the kingdom that existed before the DPRK was created. As such, the North Korean government always taught us to criticize the feudal system. But since the succession of Kim Jung Un, the government showed the people it was no different to that of a feudal kingdom. As such, North Korean people started to say that they have gone back to feudal age, where a son can inherit power from his father.
“The execution of Jang Song Thaek was the biggest shock for me”
With the people restless due to the unsatisfying results of Kim Jong Un’s succession, Jang Song Thaek was executed without any warning.
The execution of Jang Song Thaek might make ordinary North Koreans worry for now, but I think in the end this reign of terror will backfire on Kim Jong Un. First, people knew about Jang longer than they knew Kim Jong Un. Second, most of rich and powerful people were somewhat connected to Jang’s faction.
Since the execution of Jang, people started to call Kim Jong Un the “The Big King”. The term “Big King” came from the movie which was created about a cruel leader named ‘Big King’ who governed his people with horror and ruthlessness.
Well…in my opinion, North Korea has not changed all that much since I left. I am actually baffled by how it has regressed.
For any President, the first thing he would do after being elected would be to carry out policies to generate people’s support. But in the case of North Korea, Kim Jong Un started his administration with public executions and military threats toward the South.
In other words, he already knows that it’s impossible to convincing the people to support his cause. Because to get the people’s support would require economic progress, and economic progress would be impossible without reform and opening up.
Kim Jong Un is not someone who is capable of carrying out reform. It’s surprising how North Korea’s political elites fail to see their future, and fail to see the people’s sentiments.
“North Korea has not changed all that much since I left. I am actually baffled by how it has regressed”
Another thing that has surprised me is that the internal power struggles in North Korea have become so acute that they are now visible from the outside world. The current situation in North Korea – with the public execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek and the public release of this news – is quite unprecedented. That also means that things are quite urgent there.
You can also sense change through the expressionless faces of the North Korean people right after Kim Jong Ils death. This is no comparison to what happened with Kim Il Sung’s death. The people’s tears for Kim Il-sung were tears of absolute support and sorrow. But when Kim Jong Il died, the people were neither devasted nor stricken with grief. This is just one instance of how much the people themselves have changed.
It is very hard to think of any major changes in North Korea since I left. However, I can tell from the execution of Jang Song Thaek that the regime is unstable compared to the Kim Jong Il-era.
When Jang was executed I thought to myself, “Kim Jong Un must have worried so much that he had to execute his own uncle.” I could also tell from what happened that there was a group in the regime that was opposed to Jang Song Thaek.They might feel safer now that Jang Song Thaek is gone. But those elites won’t be as loyal as before.
“I can tell from the execution of Jang Song Thaek that the regime is unstable compared to the Kim Jong Il-era”
Beyond the politics, I’m surprised by how quickly cell phones are spreading in North Korea. In the past, I wondered when I’d be finally able to own a cell phone. But now many people in North Korea own and use cell phones. I heard that rich North Koreans even use touch phones. They also use tablet PCs. This would have been something inconceivable for all of us even a few years ago.
If North Koreans are ever allowed to use the internet freely and communicate with people in other countries, changes will come to North Korea much more quickly.
It has been 13 years since I left North Korea. In this time, the most surprising change I have seen has been the vitalization of the market economy in North Korea – and the public’s increasing dependence on it.
The market economy has developed significantly, to an unimaginable point at the time when I was there. As such, the North Korean people’s dependence to the government is decreasing every day. This means that the control of the North Korean regime is weakening day by day.
“The most surprising change I have seen has been the vitalization of the market economy in North Korea”
Also, I have heard that North Korean people, in private settings, increasingly complain or share their true thoughts about the regime. This was all unimaginable when I was in North Korea.
The emergence and distribution of mobile phones has been a big surprise for me.
Originally the North Korean regime wasn’t in favor of allowing people to use mobile phones because they were afraid of rumors spreading quickly about people.
As such, it is surprising that more and more people own cell phones all over North Korea now.
“The emergence and distribution of mobile phones has been a big surprise for me”
Since I left the country over ten years ago, I have been constantly surprised at how slowly North Korea changes.
Except for Pyongyang, places in North Korea seem to get worse and worse.
While there is an emerging class of North Koreans who dress like South Koreans and are in possession of cell phones are wealthy, they only make up a very small portion of the North Korean population.
“I have been constantly surprised at how slowly North Korea changes”
As such, the biggest change is that the rich keeps getting richer with time, and the increasing economic divide between the haves and have-nots continues to grow.
Increasingly, North Koreans get to go to China to work as migrant workers. In the past, they were sent to Siberia to work in logging where they had highly limited contact with the local people deep in the mountains.
However, North Koreans are now sent to urban cities in China as migrant workers – and this is something that will a big impact on their view of the DPRK leadership.
They’ll be able to see the great difference and contrast between China and North Korea. They’ll also see the world through the TV in Chinese cities. You could say that they’ll start to believe in other ideologies.
“Increasingly, North Koreans get to go to China to work as migrant workers”
For me I think the biggest surprise has been that people completely understand the concept of a market economy now. Today, if there were no longer markets, it would create a situation in which people couldn’t live.
The market is leading to specialized economic activities of many types. In their own way, people now specialize in one type of business transaction or another. Consequently, people are increasingly out on the road, and that’s a big change.
I think the upper class families in Sinheung have got a lot wealthier. Therefore, the gap between the the rich people in Sinheung and the poor is now beyond our imagination. As a result of market activity there are now a lot of rich people in North Korea, some of whom might hold more than $50,000 in savings.
“If there were no longer markets, it would create a situation in which people couldn’t live”
Other surprises for me have been the rise of tourism, spread of mobile phones, and increasing amount of foreign currency in distribution.
What surprised me most was the importance of the surveillance system (on the community). A system where neighbors watched over one another seemed to work like a frightening web in the community.
Another thing that surprised me since leaving was the opening up of Rajin and Sonbong, the fact that something that was being discussed in the age of Kim Il Sung was only implemented over a decade later.
“Another thing that surprised me since leaving was the opening up of Rajin and Sonbong”
Also, North Korea hasn’t been changed since I left.
I was a bit surprised by the execution of Jang Song Thaek, but it was the result of the cruelty of Kim Jong Un – not from change in North Korea. There is no need to write the reasons for this, as I haven’t been that surprised.
Main picture: E. Lafforgue