SEOUL–With a network of political prison camps holding an estimated 120,000 people, North Korea has garnered an infamous reputation for brutally suppressing dissent.
But a recent report based on defector testimony suggests that leader Kim Jong-un may actually enjoy the support of a majority of his citizens.
In a collection of surveys carried out by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, almost 63% of defectors perceived Kim to enjoy majority support in North Korea. That is despite human rights abuses described by a UN Commission of Inquiry last year as being “without any parallel in the contemporary world.”
The participants in the surveys fled the pariah nation between 2010 and last year. Kim assumed power in December 2011, following the death of his father Kim Jong-il.
The release of the report on August 26 came just a day after the two Koreas reached a deal to defuse three weeks of elevated tensions. The latest standoff erupted after a landmine explosion earlier this month, which South Korea blamed on Pyongyang.
“Possibly because of expectations North Koreans had when they thought of the young leader taking power, support was high at the start but slipped a little after 2-3 years,” said Professor Kim Byung-ro, one of the report’s co-authors.
“Why he has received such support is particularly hard to explain,” added Prof. Kim, while noting that defectors have generally perceived strong support for North Korean leaders.
In the case of Kim Jong-un, signs of tentative economic growth, fueled by the emergence of semi-tolerated private markets in recent years, could be part of the answer.
South Korea’s Hyundai Research Institute has even predicted that North Korea’s economy could expand this year by 7.5%, an impressive if improbably optimistic figure, after years of stagnant or negative growth.
“People are feeling better,” said Andrei Lankov, a long-time North Korea scholar who studied in Pyongyang in the late 1980s.
“They are better fed, they are better dressed, they have electronic gadgets they could not dream about five or 10 years ago,” Lankov said.
But could this support be genuine? Yes, according to Lankov, who noted that North Koreans he has met in China have often followed positive remarks about Kim with harsh criticism of his father, who presided over a devastating famine in the mid-90s and years of economic contraction.
In a society where the entire Kim family demands reverence, badmouthing the deceased patriarch could not be considered much safer than criticizing the current leader.
Gareth Johnson, the founder of Young Pioneer Tours, a travel company that runs tours inside the country, has also sensed growing optimism since the younger Kim took power.
“Whilst people might not give in-depth personal opinions, there does seem to be a general positive vibe, life has got better, the economy has grown and living standards have improved,” he said, noting approving comments about new swimming pools, apartment blocks and skating rinks constructed in
Pyongyang in recent years.
“He appears, to North Korean eyes, to have changed things quite a lot — especially the economy seems to be improving — and though time will tell if these changes are superficial or lasting, at the moment people are impressed by what he’s doing,” said another frequent foreign visitor, who has worked in and out of the country for the past seven years.
Kim’s image is also buttressed by the state’s colossal propaganda apparatus, which portrays North Korea as besieged by foreign threats, specifically the US, which fought against Pyongyang in the Korean War, and Japan, the former colonizer of the Korean Peninsula.
To some extent, North Koreans are afraid of the alternative, according to Lankov.
Yet, it remains difficult to say how well either these observations or defector testimony reflect general opinion inside North Korea. Not only is the latest report based on perceptions rather than personal views, the 656 respondents do not constitute a representative sample of their countrymen.
Apart from being escapees rather than current residents, almost 85% of those questioned hail from the same two provinces, Ryanggang and North Hwanghae.
Sokeel Park, research and strategy director of non-profit Liberty in North Korea, said that “every lens is distorted” when researching one of the most heavily censored nations on the planet.
“If you go as a tourist, it’s obvious that there is a big tourism distortion. Or if you are a diplomat based in Pyongyang, then you have a Pyongyang distortion,” said Park whose NGO helps rescue defectors in China.
“If you work with North Korean refugees, then it depends how you work with them, but you are going to have defector distortion,” Park said.
Moreover, gauging public sentiment is necessarily fraught in a country where open dissent carries the risk of imprisonment or even death.
“That is one of those perennial problems in authoritarian countries, and North Korea is an extreme version of that,” says Park. “In all those countries where you end up with systemic change, it looks like the leader has public support until they don’t.”
Indeed, the report itself contains hints of disgruntlement among citizens. More than 90% of respondents who defected last year blamed either Kim, the ruling party or the regime for the weak economy.
Despite recent gains, North Korea’s GDP remains only about one-fortieth the size of that of neighboring South Korea, according to some estimates.
“I’ve even heard criticism from a few people but generally it’s subtle,” said the long-time visitor who requested anonymity.
“Most people don’t specifically blame any of the leaders by name but refer to ‘the government’ for example,” he said.
Despite what he described as Kim’s relative popularity, he said he was uncertain how long the dictator would be able to placate the populace with modest economic growth and minor reforms.
“I know many Koreans are starting to question a lot of what goes on around them and realize that some of their laws are nothing like the rest of the world,” he said. “They know about the Internet and wish they had it, they question why they can’t travel.”
John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others.
(Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)