Resistance against N. Korean regime taking root, survey suggests

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

TOKYO -- There is mounting evidence that Kim Jong Il is losing the propaganda war inside North Korea, with more than half the population now listening to foreign news, grass-roots cynicism undercutting state myths and discontent rising even among elites.

A survey of refugees has found that "everyday forms of resistance" in the North are taking root as large swaths of the population believe that pervasive corruption, rising inequity and chronic food shortages are the fault of the government in Pyongyang -- and not of the United States, South Korea or other foreign forces. The report will be released this week by the East-West Center, a research group established by Congress.

The report comes amid unconfirmed accounts from inside North Korea of a rising number of starvation deaths caused by a bad harvest and bungled currency reform that disrupted food markets, caused runaway inflation and triggered widespread citizen unrest.

Last week, North Korea reportedly executed the top finance official responsible for the currency fiasco, and several top officials have publicly apologized -- a remarkable turn for a dictatorship that enslaves and executes its political enemies in labor camps.

The number of starvation deaths in South Pyongan province, in the center of the country, is in the thousands since January, according to Good Friends, a Seoul relief group with informants inside North Korea. It said bodies of malnourished elderly people were being found in the streets of Pyongyang, the capital, and it quoted unnamed party officials as saying that starvation has risen in some areas this winter to levels unseen since the 1990s, when famine killed as many as 1 million North Koreans.

This mix of deadly food shortages, bureaucratic bumbling and rising cynicism presents a potentially destabilizing threat to Kim's government. It comes at a delicate time, when the ailing 68-year-old leader has launched a secretive process to hand power over to his untested 27-year-old son, Kim Jong Eun.

"Once a government has so badly damaged trust, it may be very difficult, if not impossible, to restore its credibility," said Marcus Noland, co-author of "Political Attitudes under Repression," the new report on a survey of North Korean refugees.

Although Kim's government appears to be losing the hearts and minds of North Koreans, there is little or no indication that organized opposition has emerged inside the country, said Noland, deputy director of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics.

But signals of internal stress are growing, according to another new report on conditions inside North Korea. The International Crisis Group, an independent group that advises many Western governments and U.N. agencies, said last week that pressure from the deteriorating food supply and "disastrous" currency reform "could have a number of unanticipated consequences for regional international security. A sudden split in the leadership, although unlikely, is not out of the question."

The refugee survey suggests that the ground beneath Kim's government has shifted considerably in the past decade, as private markets have exploded in size and influence -- and as most North Koreans are no longer dependent on the dysfunctional central government for food or work.

The results in the report are based on a November 2008 survey of 300 North Korean refugees living in South Korea. The refugees in the survey -- parts of which were first publicized last fall -- include new arrivals as well as those who fled during the height of the 1990s famine.

"Evaluations of the regime appear to be getting more negative over time," the report said. "Although those who departed earlier were more willing to entertain the view that the country's problems were due to foreigners, respondents who left later were more likely to hold the government accountable."

Noland and his co-author, Stephan Haggard, an Asian specialist at the University of California in San Diego, concede that the survey -- with its reliance on a self-selected group that made the perilous choice to flee North Korea -- might overrepresent those who abhor the leadership in Pyongyang. But they note that most refugees fled the North for economic reasons and that their demographic background roughly mirrors the shape of North Korean society.

The survey found that cynicism about the government -- and willingness to crack jokes about its failures -- was higher among refugees who come from elite backgrounds in the government or military. It also found that distaste for the government was strongest among those deeply involved in the markets.

The most striking finding of the survey was the reach of those markets across all strata of North Korean society, with nearly 70 percent of respondents saying that half or more of their income came from private business dealings.

In addition, more than half of refugees who have fled North Korea since 2006 said they listened or watched foreign news reports regularly. North Korea outlaws radios and TVs that can be tuned to foreign stations, but consumer electronics have flooded into the country from China.

"Not only is foreign media becoming more widely available, inhibitions on its consumption are declining as well," the report said, referring to broadcasts from South Korea, China and the United States. "The availability of alternative sources of information undermines the heroic image of a workers' paradise and threatens to unleash the information cascade that can be so destabilizing to authoritarian rule."

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