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Foreign Policy: They’re Not Brainwashed, They’re Just Miserable

Author: Marcus Noland
March 30, 2010


Marcus Noland outlines two recent surveys of North Korean refugees in China and South Korea which found, not surprisingly, that North Koreans privately hold highly critical views of the regime and are rather miserable.

This month, North Korea reportedly executed the Korean Workers' Party's economic policy director, Pak Nam Gi, for being a "bourgeois infiltrator" who ruined the country's economy. Upon his 2005 appointment to the position, a post akin to a finance minister, Pak had allegedly vowed to put an end to the "capitalist fantasy." But the 77-year-old technocrat's disastrous currency-reform program, launched Nov. 30, 2009, ended up damaging something very real: the informal market economy that today provides for most North Koreans' sustenance. The "reform" chopped two zeros off the currency, gave citizens only a brief window to exchange their wealth, and capped the amount of old bills that North Koreans could trade in at roughly $40.

So complete was the resulting economic chaos that it precipitated an unprecedented outpouring of civil disobedience. And though the sporadic protests appear to have been relatively small and uncoordinated, the reported prominence of octogenarian war veterans among the protesters was enough to unnerve the government. The fiasco was obviously self-inflicted and visibly inconsistent with the regime's tendency to attribute all ills that befall the country to foreign "hostile forces." Pyongyang bumped up the limit for currency exchanges and in February made a historically unparalleled apology to the public delivered by Pak and Premier Kim Yong Il. And because leader Kim Jong Il's favorite son and rumored successor, Kim Jong Un, was associated with the policy, someone had to pay. Pak was the scapegoat.

From the outside, the apology looks like a watershed moment for one of the world's most repressive regimes. Yet understanding how North Koreans actually assess these events is enormously difficult. In highly repressive states like North Korea, people engage in what social scientists call "preference falsification," or, more colloquially, "keeping your head down" -- suppressing the outward expression of their true feelings in favor of maintaining a facade of support. But two recent large-scale surveys of North Korean refugees conducted in China and South Korea suggest that privately held assessments of the regime are indeed highly negative. The surveys, of which I am a co-author, paint a picture of an atomized society where trust is scant and collective action negligible.

With the refugees having voted with their feet, it would of course be surprising if they did not hold the regime in low regard. But when we controlled for observable characteristics such as age, gender, occupation, and even life experiences such as receipt of food aid or arrest and detention, the refugees' views do not appear too different from our best statistical projection of those of the remaining resident population. In short, the surveys offer a unique glimpse into the Hermit Kingdom.

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