Economics, Governance, Human Rights

North Korea Survey Reveals Three Core Trends

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

Although North Koreans are often depicted as an oppressed yet obedient people, recent survey data tells a different story. Political attitudes and economic activities in the isolated state changed dramatically on the heels of a massive famine that struck in the mid-1990s. An unprecedented rise in marketization followed, as common North Korean citizens could no longer rely upon the state to support their livelihoods. This marketization created opportunities for North Koreans to experiment with new forms of communication and freedom, but subsequently precipitated crackdowns and confiscatory policies from the regime. The first section of the CSIS Beyond Parallel survey reveals three core trends associated with this transition period. We explore the origin and implications of these trends below.

Changing Attitudes Toward the Public Distribution System (PDS)

In 2002, the North Korean government attempted to reform the budding market economy through measures including the July 1st Economic Reform Measures. However, this apparent shift toward leniency was short-lived. In a bid to clamp down on the markets in 2005, the authorities launched concerted efforts to restore state factories and released propaganda that touted the return of the (previously defunct) public distribution system.

Accompanying the alleged return of the PDS were strengthened ideological control measures and increasing pressure on residents to participate in socialist obligations (mandatory duties associated with various Party agencies). Rather than inspiring loyalty and admiration from the residents, however, these efforts to resurrect the PDS actually produced the opposite effect. The majority of North Koreans quickly came to realize that they were better off without the PDS and its accompanying state control measures, reinforcing the understanding that they were better at providing for themselves through the marketplace than the government was able to.

According to the North Korean government’s nutrition guidelines, the PDS is responsible for providing each adult with 535 grams of staple food per day. This allotment does not include side dishes or other necessities (such as cooking oil). These guidelines fall significantly below the nutritional standards set by the World Health Organization for both nutritional quantity and diversity.

Even modest estimates for the average amount that residents can earn through the marketplace yield an income that is several times larger than what is supposed to be provided through the PDS. This has evidently not gone unnoticed by the population. The control measures and regulations associated with the PDS limit the amount of time that residents can spend working in the markets. Therefore, rather than reinforcing socialist ideals and unifying the populace, the majority of survey respondents view the PDS as a failed policy.

Frustration With Regime Policies that Extort the Market

The most prominent example of a confiscatory policy is the nationwide currency redenomination that occurred in 2009. The regime claimed that the policy was necessary to curb inflation and re-circulate ‘idle currency.’ However, North Korean residents quickly understood that the move was a thinly-veiled plunder of their hard-earned savings, and an attempt to assert control over the marketplaces. The policy became a major source of frustration and antipathy, and irreversibly etched itself into the collective memory of the North Korean people. A phrase spread among the population to explain these oppressive measures: “They nurtured a pig, only to eat it when it grew up.”

A number of unfortunate individuals who accumulated considerable savings and influence through successful market investments were purged or executed, despite paying the bribes demanded by government agents. These incidents reinforced a common understanding of the importance of systematic protections for private property. A common warning permeated everyday chatter: “Don’t follow politics. Focus on earning money.” The hypocritical nature of cadres is witnessed on a day-to-day basis, as they demand both socialist ideals and a bribe from residents in the same breath.

Further information on the pervasive use of foreign currency over domestic currency in North Korea following the currency redenomination is available here.

Rising Dissatisfaction with the Socialist System

Residents are also frustrated with Kim Jong Un’s penchant for exploitative policies. The regime is socialist in name, but partially embraces capitalist practices. Although North Korea is ostensibly tax-free, the regime’s survival is dependent on revenue generated from bribes and mandatory ‘donations’ from the public, with the amount of bribery revenue generated being directly proportional to the scale of marketization it permits.

As the citizens of North Korea retain hope for reform and liberalization, they are increasingly investing in teaching their children foreign languages. This implies that they are placing a bet against the longevity of the socialist system and its isolationist policies. It is also notable that the motives for defection are changing. An increasing number of defectors are reporting that their decision to escape North Korea was heavily influenced by a desire to provide their children with a better education and life overseas.