SEOUL — North Koreans are becoming more independent of the ruling Kim regime, with the vast majority of households earning their living through markets rather than relying on the state, according to a new survey that attempts to shed light on ordinary life inside North Korea.
Getting reliable information from North Korea is notoriously difficult given the restrictions on movement and information inside the totalitarian state. But the Beyond Parallel project run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, is trying to extract ever more information from North Koreans who live and work in the country, as opposed to the more prevalent surveys of those who have escaped from the nation.
Its latest “micro-survey” found that 72 percent of respondents — or 26 of the 36 North Koreans questioned — said they earned all or almost all income through the markets.
Nine others said they earned more than three-quarters of their living this way, according to the survey, to be published Monday.
“Of all the respondents that we talked to, the people who were most upset about the government impeding market activities were women rather than men,” said Victor Cha, who holds the Korea chair at CSIS and runs the Beyond Parallel project, which focuses on Korean unification.
When asked what caused them to feel the greatest animosity toward the Kim Jong Un regime, 11 of the 16 women surveyed said low salaries or market interference.
This is probably a reflection of the fact that it is overwhelmingly married women who work in the markets, while their husbands have low-paying but compulsory jobs in state factories or agencies.
The finding was consistent with a 2015 survey of North Korean defectors conducted by researchers at Seoul National University.
Three-quarters of respondents in that survey estimated that 70 percent or more of North Koreans were engaged in market activity or some other kind of personal business.
“Second, the influence of the markets in North Korea, in terms of the percentage of household income that comes from the markets, is clearly not limited to the border areas,” Cha said.
While the provinces running along the border with China are the first stop for many of the goods and ideas that come into North Korea, the mini survey found no difference in responses between border areas and other parts of the country.
The only person who reported that less than three-quarters of their income came through the markets lived in Pyongyang, the capital and home to those most loyal to the regime.
Markets began to operate in the nominally communist nation during the mid-1990s, when a devastating famine ripped through North Korea and the regime was unable to supply food rations.
The markets have been growing ever since but have exploded under Kim Jong Un’s regime, chipping away at people’s reliance on the state.
There are now more than 400 markets, called “jangmadang,” where ordinary North Koreans can buy and sell and keep their profits, in addition to the state-run markets, which also have grown in number under Kim’s rule.
This has brought about a huge change in the way that people interact with one another and has loosened the regime’s ability to use food as a method of control, analysts say.
Beyond Parallel has asked a nongovernmental agency that works inside North Korea to conduct the mini-surveys, in which 36 people — 20 men and 16 women — ages 28 to 80 are polled.
They come from a variety of backgrounds — working such jobs as doctor, laborer, homemaker, factory worker and company president — and live across the country.
Most of the questioning in the mini-surveys has been done in and around markets, where there is freer communication, Cha said.
But, given the constraints of working in tightly controlled North Korea, the surveys are not carried out by a person with a name badge and a clipboard. Some respondents might not even know they’re being surveyed.
Other subjects explored in earlier surveys have included how North Koreans think and talk about the regime in private and the broken-down government rations system.