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Rob York is a feature writer for NK News and Ph.D candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
North Koreans have undergone a substantial shift on the home front in recent years: a new leader, a stabilizing economy and increasing knowledge of the outside world.
In part nine of the NK News specialist opinion survey series, the specialists discuss these recent cultural changes , how content average North Koreans are with the status quo, and the act of defection as a means to promote change.
The experts did not reach a consensus as to which of these developments could be considered the biggest change, but generally did suggest that improved economic conditions, at least relative to the late 1990s, have not left Northerners satisfied with their lot. This is largely because increased knowledge of the outside world has revealed the prosperity of their neighbors.
Still, while it was suggested that encouraging defections could create additional bridges between the North and South, specialists acknowledged the difficulties of the migration process. As such, they generally stop short of recommending that outsiders actively encourage defections.
I would say the biggest societal developments of the past five years have been the continuation of trends that emerged out of the collapse of the state-socialist economy in the 1990s. So, for instance, the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots and the increasing spending power of the haves has manifested in more cars and motorbikes on the roads and more conspicuous spending of disposable income in restaurants and so on.
Similarly, the increasing spending power of the new moneyed class and greater access to information technologies has led to a big increase in ownership of laptops, portable DVD players and mobile phones over the last five years, which accelerate information flows and confound other ongoing social changes, as well as serving as status symbols.
It shouldn’t be all that surprising per se, since change comes to every place in due time, but the single greatest cultural and societal development in North Korea over the last five years is certainly the elevation of Kim Jong Un in late 2011. How could anything else trump a leadership change in a country that does so roughly once every three decades?
With that change of leader have come amendments to the state’s approach to cultural production and societal control. North Korea has not liberalized in any meaningful sense under Kim Jong Un; it is still a crushingly authoritarian place where individual creativity is frowned upon and dissent liable to result in imprisonment or worse. However, the government’s efforts to control the “transformational narrative” that constitutes the basis of the ruling legitimacy of the Kim family has changed significantly.
A fine representative example of this is “re-defection,” the process by which, it is alleged, citizens defect to South Korea but then return to the North. Bear in mind that South Korea was once described as a place where life was universally terrible and “the masses” lived under the yoke of American imperialism. North Koreans then learned of the burgeoning wealth of South Korea back in the 1980s, but the idea of American dominance and lack of autonomy lingered on. Go through time to the present day, then, and we find a place where it is acknowledged that the South Korean people live well, but defectors exist in a troubled transient space of discrimination, low wages, exploitation and hardship. This narrative shift didn’t happen overnight with the arrival of Kim Jong Un, but the phenomenon of regular “re-defector press conferences” is a manifestation of the idea that life as a defector, away from the loving embrace of Kim Jong Un, will be impossibly tough.
The success of Kim Jong Un’s efforts to restore the control over the once porous border with China.
It seems that he takes the ideological contamination issue far more seriously than his father did, and is ready to spend significant resources ion restoring domestic control.
I did not expect him, though, to be so successful: the number of the refugees, arriving to the South, nearly halved, so the new policy clearly works.
It is too early to say, but it appears that the Supreme Leader has chosen the only course of actions which gives him some (rather slim) chance of the long-term survival: a combination of modest and slow economic reforms with harsher control over ideology.
The biggest development, while immensely gratifying, should not be surprising to those who have watched North Korea over a longer period. We could see it coming.
I refer to the whole gamut of social and cultural changes that have resulted from the de facto marketization of the economy. That momentous development came in response to the population’s desperation when faced, in the 1990s, with final proof that the state could not continue playing its accustomed role of provider. People had no choice but to provide for themselves, and their families.
By making available to large numbers of North Koreans such communication tools as DVDs and cellphones, the winds of marketization have ripped and tattered the regime’s “mosquito net” barrier to communication with the outside world. The social and cultural changes resulting are enumerated daily by such publications as NK News and the Daily NK, coming so thick and fast that it takes a big chunk of the day for people like me to keep up with them.
Ultimately, this question is tied up in socio-economic issues: the people who gain under the current system versus the ones who do not. Better to be a “have” in North Korea than a “have-not” in a unified Korea or a Chinese vassal state!
The available evidence from our inside sources suggests that non-elites are not content with the performance of their government. They do not trust it to make policy decisions that benefit them, and they certainly are not prepared to freely entrust their assets to its care. However, most (especially those with commercial acumen) passively acquiesce to its existence. Elites may also not be content with the performance of the government, but they gain from it in terms of rent-seeking and access to commercial privilege, are also threatened by it, and so they actively support it through their actions.
In terms of the second question: In any place that suffers from widespread poverty, as North Korea does, the majority of individuals do not plan for the future; they plan for tomorrow. The same has been true of North Korea for a number of decades. Coincidentally, that is why rising levels of private capital investment (rather than hard currency hoarding, for instance) would be indirect evidence of rising public confidence in the government; first, it would mean rising incomes; and second, it would indicate a willingness to invest today’s capital for tomorrow’s income. Of course, public spending on infrastructure and vanity projects, such as statues, does not indicate anything similar.
Well, happiness is difficult to define, and it has been shown that the “happiness level” in a given society does not depend that much on political freedom or income level.
From the anecdotal evidence, however partial and biased, I suspect that the average North Korean feels less happy now than, say, five years ago.
The economic situation has markedly improved, it is true, but the information about the outside world is getting in, so North Koreans now compare their lot with the lives of the Chinese and, increasingly, South Koreans.
Additionally, the Supreme Leader often looks strange, even bizarre, and does many things common people hardly appreciate.
This is inherently a very difficult question to answer. I live in South Korea and I don’t know how happy I would say the average South Korean is either.
It is important to note that while there are still many North Koreans that are severely deprived of basic necessities, and of course the regime’s structure of oppression can present formidable barriers to human happiness, there is happiness in ordinary North Korean people’s lives. It depends on personal situations and circumstances and of course personality, the same as the rest of humanity.
However it is also clear that there are huge gains in human happiness to be made if the government stopped attempting totalitarian and micro-managed control over society, allowing ordinary North Koreans to fulfill their potential and break out of their effectively enforced poverty.
Happiness is a tricky concept. How happy is the average American, living in the richest and perhaps freest country in the world? Permit me to rephrase, posing the question whether the internal approval rating for the regime and the system has changed. I would say it most definitely has plunged since 1979, the year I first visited the country.
There’s a great deal of hard evidence to go along with anecdotal impressions from that visit that people overwhelmingly bought into the system – the younger people even more so than those old enough to remember what had come before 1945. For the most part, those disinclined by social class to applaud the policies of Kim Il Sung had left for South Korea during the Korean War or had been purged. The people who remained had seen the North build a relatively egalitarian society and an economy that, up to a point, had outpaced South Korea’s. Compared with people in many other countries, North Koreans were devoted to the common good, sweet-spirited and uncorrupted. If they didn’t rise to the impossible “New Man” standard set by propagandists, they were trying awfully hard.
It was downhill from then on, as people struggled with food shortages that turned into famine in the mid-1990s. While it appears that physical conditions have trended upward somewhat since the mid-‘90s, people seem to know that this is not on account of the official system but, rather, despite it.
The schools and youth organizations still do their work to instill loyalty, but it seems likely based on the news we get from within the country that there remain relatively few adult true believers. Corruption by now has become endemic; the watchword pretty much has to be “every family for itself.”
People do give lip service to loyalty – and human nature still keeps most of them inclined to credit that part of the regime’s propaganda narrative that blames outsiders for their difficulties. But it’s likely that the approval rating they would give the system and the Kim dynasty (which produced and now preserves the system) is way down.
Encouraged in a practical way, or in a purely rhetorical sense?
At the very least, I think that the international community, led by South Korea, should do everything in its power to convey the message that North Koreans of all but the uppermost senior ranks are welcome abroad, and that should they opt to leave and move to South Korea they will be supported as they seek to integrate into a radically different society to the one they left. That is our minimum responsibility.
Beyond this, one gets into troubled waters concerning sovereignty, economic impact in multiple locales and the realities of life as a refugee.
Let me put it this way: it is ethically improper to encourage defection if one is not ready to put money on the table to support it.
I believe it should be.
Defectors/refugees will serve as bridges to North Korean society, delivering knowledge (both political and technical) inside the closed society, thus helping people to adjust and preparing them for a change.
Once things change, sooner or later, many refugees will become intermediaries, educators, activists and leaders, facilitating change and also making it less painful.
They are a reserve force of unification, if you like.
Not all are suited to this role, we know, but the more people we have around the greater the number of trustworthy candidates will be present.
If people decide, on their own, that they must defect, of course we should encourage and help them. I’m skeptical, though, about the value of inciting people to defect.
For one thing, the largest numbers go to China. Achieving stability in their lives there is difficult in view of the Chinese government’s view that they are not political refugees/defectors but illegal migrant workers.
It’s true that tens of thousands have made their way to South Korea, where they can settle with relative normality. But making their transitions work well has been a struggle both for them and for their South Korean hosts.
I think that defectors in both China and South Korea will be judged, when the history of this era is written, to have comprised a positive force. Still there probably are limits on how many more defectors either host country can handle.
Perhaps more importantly, North Korea is going to need resident citizens who have thought through what is wrong and how things need to be changed. Such people until recently have had little voice, other than through underground news transmissions to the outside world. One thing we are learning from those transmissions, however, is that more people than before are now daring to speak out to close friends – taking their chances on avoiding discovery by the spies among them.
It may well be unrealistic to expect ordinary people to lead a revolution, but even a regime change led by internal elite forces would need popular support. The potential for such support will be diluted if too many secret dissidents leave for other countries.
No, defection should depend on personal circumstances and the person’s own decision to defect or stay.
If someone makes the decision to defect, then of course assistance should be provided to them as far as possible.
There might be an exception to this principle for high level elites, where encouraging a defection might be justified because of an individual’s particular strategic importance.
Andrei Lankov – NK News columnist and professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. He was partially educated at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Bradley Martin – Journalist and historian Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. He currently holds the Roger Tatarian Endowed Chair in Journalism at California State University, Fresno.
Christopher Green – Daily NK’s International Editor and PhD candidate at Leiden University
Sokeel Park – Sokeel is LiNK’s Director of Research and Strategy. Sokeel joined LiNK after working in the South Korean government, the United Nations, and diplomatic consultancy Independent Diplomat.
Main picture: E. Lafforgue
Additional reporting: Chad O’Carroll, Doyun Kim and Phebe Kim