Economics, Human Rights

Commentary: Dissatisfaction But No Evidence Yet of A Pyongyang Spring

Commentary on Beyond Parallel’s “A View Inside North Korea”

The Beyond Parallel poll appears to have overcome two major hurdles faced by other North Korea surveys: an over-reliance on North Korean defectors and over-reliance on people from the border provinces with China, who continue to represent the vast majority of escapees. The sample is significant, comprising both genders, broad age and occupational ranges and, most importantly, geographic diversity.

The findings are not surprising, and seem to confirm trends that had already been identified through interviews with recent defectors. Although it will take many more polls in order to have definite confirmation, this is an encouraging finding for research organizations that have relied almost exclusively on defector testimony due to lack of access inside the country.

The poll confirms that many more North Koreans depend on the markets than on the public distribution system (PDS). However, poll results also indicate that one should exercise caution when assessing the impact of markets on the mentality of North Koreans. The respondents appear to maintain memories of a time when the PDS worked (the early 1990s), and to be frustrated by the government’s inability to provide for a “good life.” Such frustration signals that, at least mentally, North Koreans still expect the “nanny state” to deliver. The days of the Kim Il-sung regime may still appear as “paradise lost” to many of them, whether they experienced those times directly, or indirectly, through stories told by their elders. Recent media portrayals of North Koreans as a nation of emerging entrepreneurs defiant of government surveillance and control may be somehow exaggerated.

Another recent assumption is that, since the government is no longer able to deliver under the PDS, it generally turns a blind eye on market activities. Especially under the Kim Jong-un regime, the government has reportedly allowed markets and private entrepreneurship to flourish. However, the poll indicates a level of tension between private entrepreneurs and an oppressive government that tends to be under-estimated by outside analysts and commentators. Interestingly, the term ‘장사’ appears to carry different connotations in South and North Korea. While in South Korea it means “business” or “trade,” in North Korea ‘장사죄’ (“the crime of doing business”) is punishable by imprisonment in a re-education labor camp. This is surely not surprising, given that behavior that is “normal” by internationally accepted standards is often criminalized in North Korea (i.e. exercising basic human rights including property rights or freedom of religion, expression, information, and association,). The level of government surveillance, control and pressure applied on market entrepreneurs, exercised by both local and central authorities, may have been underestimated by outside experts and commentators.

A question often asked is the “red line” that must be crossed in order for Koreans living in the North to rise up against the Kim regime. The poll appears to confirm what has been known through defector interviews: The currency reform of late 2009 was the moment when anti-Kim regime resentment was at its highest. Based on the poll, significant tension between the government and market entrepreneurs continues to exist. Attempts to crack down on the markets may bring North Korea closer to the “red line.” If such attempts appear to come from the central government/regime core (i.e. currency reform or limiting women’s ability to engage in market activities), rather than local authorities (i.e. abuse by local officials, the extraction of excessive “informal taxation”), popular resentment will be directed toward the top leadership, with a higher potential for regime destabilization.