[Updated March 2007; See new incidents and survey stats at the bottom of the post.] According to the image of the North Korean people that their rulers carefully cultivate, North Koreans are brainwashed automatons. Regime minders, who closely follow foreign camera crews inside North Korea, seldom permit outsiders to see any alternative. That image is probably a combination of fear, stage management, brainwashing, and a degree of truth: few North Koreans have ever known anything else, and extreme nationalism also has a strong appeal in South Korea.
Still, politics and culture can only do so much to suppress human nature and need, and media reports and defectors’ reports can help us form a more complete picture of how North Koreans see their own government. NGO’s estimate that as many as 300,000 North Koreans have risked their lives to flee their homeland and the unending hunger and repression that are features of life and death there. Behind the wire, there is dissent, more signs of it emerge each year, and some of the recent acts — to include mass escapes from concentration camps and mass defections within the security forces — suggest that in some parts of the country, the regime’s control is already starting to unravel.
Opposition to Kim Jong Il is as old as the regime itself. I’ve met a number of ex-North Koreans, including a soldier who once served on the opposite side of the DMZ while I was an American soldier in South Korea, and a man who had joined other students in Pyongyang to sow anti-Kim Il Sung leaflets in the late 1940s (he left town, one step ahead of Kim Il Sung’s police). During the Korean War, U.S. forces discovered an indigenous, anti-Communist guerrilla movement fighting against Kim Il Sung’s army, near the mouth of the Yalu River. The U.S. supported and advised these “White Tigers,” who grew to a force of 22,000 by war’s end. The U.S. promptly betrayed them on signing the Armistice.
On closer examination, many of the reports of coup plots and conspiracies from the 1950s and 1960s don’t appear to be dissent at all. More likely, these were justifications for Kim Il Sung to purge distrusted factions of his own party. Professor Andrei Lankov writes of one notable exception in 1956, which Kim Il Sung crushed. For decades thereafter, as North Korea’s standard of living rose toward its apex in the 1970’s, there is little evidence of internal opposition.
By the early 1980’s, North Korea’s economy had begun to decline, and it is possible to assemble a meaningful chronology of anti-regime dissent and opposition. That opposition seems to have accelerated with several factors: the onset of famine, the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994, the arrival of outside food aid, and the breaking of the seal on North Korea’s border with China, at first by refugees, and later, by smugglers. The border is now relatively porous in both directions for those with the means to pay bribes, and corruption by border guards is said to be rife.
The chronology that follows owes more to British journalist Jasper Becker than to any other individual. Clearly, Becker shows more interest in the subject of nascent resistance than any other journalist; however, it’s clear that so much reliance on one source — even one as reputable and experienced as Becker — narrows the foundation on which these facts rest.
September 1981: [A]rmed clashes between soldiers and workers took place in Chongjin, the heavy industrial center on the East Coast, and left 500 dead. Soviet experts working inside North Korea during the 1980s reported similar clashes in Sinuiju on the border with China in 1983. Two years later, there were reports of a massacre of hundres of civilians at Hamhung when troops opened fire on protestors using the antiaircraft guns commonly installed on the roofs of many public buildings. “¦ [Jasper Becker, Rogue Regime [hereinafter Becker] at page 197]
1986 or 1987: “In the mining town of Musan near the Chinese border, local leaders found themselves caught between the hammer and the anvil. When the Musan Party Secretary banned the sale of rice on the black market, the populace threatened to rebel, reportedly saying, ‘If we don’t get rid of this party secretary the people will not survive!’ But the authorities said an ‘antigovernment organization’ was behind the outcry and arrested 200 men and women, a dozen of whom where executed in public. Of the town’s 130,000 people, refugees said half had died or fled. [Becker at 33]
1987: “The deteriorating conditions in the camps may have sparked one the largest prison camp revolts…. This took place at Camp No. 12, which housed around 15,000 political prisoners and was in Onsong close to the border with China. It started when a political prisoner in a coal mine hit back and killed a guard. Others joined him, and after killing their guards, the prisoners massacred hundreds of wives and children at the compound housing the guards’ families. Ahn reports that a battalion of troops who encircled the camp and machine-gunned some 5,000 inmates put down the uprising. The surviving prisoners were dispersed to other camps and Camp No. 12 was closed. [Becker at 98]
Another transcribed FBIS report here:
When the situation got out of control, Concentration Camp No. 12, reinforced by the guards and equipment of a nearby concentration camp and armed with machine guns, encircled the camp, fired at rioters at random, and eradicated all the 5,000 rioters, according to the sources. With the riot suppressed, rioters’ bodies were either burned, or buried in groups in the nearly hills, while those of guards and their families were buried in the nearby Sawol-ri cemetery.“Hearing firing all day long at the time, I thought a battle broke out at Concentration Camp No. 12,” reminisced a North Korean defector who had worked as an intelligence officer at the State Security Agency. “Later I learned that about one third of the rioters were shot to death, and that the concentration camp was subsequently closed down, with the remaining inmates disbursed to a number of other concentration camps.”
1990-1991: “[A] small group of students at the Kim Il Sung University were arrested for organizing protests and tortured into confessing that they had taken part in antistate activites. Around the same time, Lim Young Sun, a young army officer who later defected to the South, claims that he fell in with a group of about 30 or 40 soldiers who formed an underground group determined to overthrow Kim Jong Il. In 1991, they formed ‘The Supreme Council of National Salvation’ and distributed antigovernment leaflets, throwing them out the window of both a train and a truck. ‘We appeal to the solder’s [sic] of the people’s army and to the people to join our struggle,’ the leaflet said and called for the execution of both Kims [Becker at 97]. More here, at Time Asia.
1992: At the time of Kim Jong Il’s succession, a group of Army officers was arrested for opposing it. Ten were reportedly executed. [Becker at 197]
December 1992: Officers in the Bureau of Bodyguards attempted to stage a coup. [Becker at 198]
January 1992: The Dong-A Ilbo (a major South Korean daily) reports that the regime had uncovered a plot to prevent Kim Jong Il’s succession. Three senior officers and ten state security officials were executed. [Becker at 198]
April 1992: Report of a mutiny at Sinuiju, which was quickly crushed, along with coincident riots by hungry workers. [Becker at 199]
April 1992: The Dong-A Ilbo reports that 30 general officers were found guilty of attempted to assassinate Kim Jong Il(?). Two senior officers were shot; the others fled to Russia. [Becker at 198]
1992(?): “Not long after Kim Jong Il came to power, the prisoners at the Yodok camp erupted in open rebellion”¦. Details of the outbreak are sketchy but it seems that in 1974 some prisoners attacked the largest administration building with sticks and stones, then seized weapons and ammunition with which they began killing the guards and their families. North Korean troops arrived to suppress the uprising and hunted down the prisoners after they fled into the mountains. [Becker at 91]
March 1993: The head of South Korean intelligence reports an attempted mutiny at the VII Corps headquarters in Hamhung. Thirty reformist officers staged a report to coincide with the visit of an IAEA inspection delegation, in the hope of attracting international support. The plotters were denounced and arrested before they could carry out their plan. [Becker at 198-199]
August 1993: A defecting officer from the North Korean Army describes how food shortages led to rioting: “‘I am ashamed to say that soldiers have raided government food supplies that were supposed to be for the people,’ he said. Food distribution to civilians was irregular, and ‘well-connected businessmen and merchants have stolen food, using the support of the army.'” This same defector may have been the source for Jasper Becker’s report of the failed 1992 coup plot. [The Guardian]
1994: The regime burned ten officers at the stake for plotting to assassinate Kim Jong Il. All were officers at the Hanggon Military Officers’ Training School. [Becker at 199]
1995: Leaders of the VI Corps, based in Chongjin, planned to seize key facilities in the city, gain the support of the VII Corps in Hamhung, and march on Pyongyang. The plotters were arrested before they could execute their plan. [Becker at 199]
Summer, 1996: Two large murals of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Sinuiju destroyed. [Becker at 201]
Summer, 1996: Anti-Kim graffiti in Yongchun. [Becker at 201]
1997: Hwang Jang Yop, one of North Korea’s leading political theorists and scholars, defects.
1997: A statue of Kim Il Sung was partially destroyed in Sinuiju. [Becker at 201]
Febuary 1998: A North Korean agricultural envoy defects. He reports that famine has killed 2.8 million people, and is causing increasing popular unrest [BBC].
Later that month, Becker [at 190] describes the Songrim incident, which took place at the blighted and looted Hwanghae Iron and Steel Works. Becker describes an Army crackdown against the looting of the mill, which had stopped producing steel in 1994 when the government stopped importing coke. Der Spiegel goes much further when it seemingly cites Becker as a source for the following passage, which describes a strike put down by force:
For example, Becker obtained details about the biggest labor demonstrations in North Korea’s history, which took place in 1998 in the industrial city of Songrim. The protests began on a cold February morning after the public execution of eight men, all managers at the Hwanghae Iron and Steel Works. Their crime? In an effort to provide food for the workers and their families, they sold parts of the factory to Chinese businessmen.
Even though many of Songrim’s inhabitants were starving at the time, the attempt to circumvent the defunct public supply system to obtain food was considered sabotage and treason. The deal with wealthy comrades from the other side of the border was quickly exposed when Chinese grain freighters were seen openly unloading cargo designated for Songrim at the port of Nampo. When the bodies of the eight functionaries, including two Central Committee members, fell into the dust, a woman in the crowd yelled: “They did not try to enrich themselves, but to help the workers. Shooting them is brutal.” The courageous woman was one of the town’s most respected citizens. As a nurse working in an elite hospital in Pyongyang, she had even taken care of the country’s leaders. But that didn’t protect her. Three soldiers grabbed the woman and shot her on the spot. The crowd, deeply fearful and horrified, quickly dispersed. A few hours later, however, the factory’s employees stopped working. The peaceful protest was short-lived. The next morning, tanks broke through the factory gates and mowed down the demonstrators. According to eyewitness reports, hundreds lost their lives. Several days later, dozens of suspected agitators were shot, and countless so-called counter-revolutionaries and their families were taken away to labor camps.
Becker’s book, however, doesn’t describe industrial unrest or tanks machine-gunning workers. Call that one an unresolved inconsistency. It may reflect the opacity of North Korea’s society and the inherent unreliability of anything we learn about the place.
1998: Another statue is reportedly blown up in Hyesan. A group of students in Pyongyang is said to have protested against the government; some of them are later arrested and/or executed. [Becker at 201]
1998: Diplomats in Pyongyang pass along reports of large-scale protests in Orang County, on the East Coast of North Korea, over food shortages. The government sent in 5,000 troops to put down the unrest; 500 people are reported killed. This appears to be the same incident reported to have taken place in Onsong in October, as described here, at Stratfor.
April 2000: Amnesty International reports:
Serious disturbances are reported to have taken place at Tumen Detention Centre in the northeastern province of Jilin in China in April 2000. The Centre, believed to be used to detain North Koreans who have entered China “illegally”, was apparently the scene of protests by the detainees against poor treatment and forcible return to North Korea. Some sources reported that amongst the inmates, there were three North Korean ex-soldiers who strongly demanded not to be returned to North Korea for fear of being killed by the North Korean authorities. According to reports, some 80 inmates (seventy women and ten men including a four-year-old child) were involved in the disturbances which were brought to a swift end by prison guards. Some 60 inmates were subsequently forcibly returned to North Korea. One report quoted one man whose job it is to drive such people to the border say: ” Yes, the girls cry; of course they cry. I heard that if they have to send a girl back, she might be tortured. Some of them are so frightened that it is as though they are in shock. All the way to the border, 60 kilometres, they stare ahead saying nothing.”
April 2001: The Washington Post reports on the rise of clandestine churches in North Korea, assisted by smuggled Bibles printed in South Korea. The Post’s Doug Struck interviews a number of ex-North Koreans in the South.
June 2001: Jasper Becker, writing for the South China Morning Post, reports on a growing underground church movement inside North Korea.
November 2002: A TimeAsia story (Donald MacIntyre) notes growing dissent, including among lower-ranking officials, and an increased refugee exodus, but little of active resistance except leafleting: “A former state security agent in northeastern Hamgyong province before he defected in 1998 says that every six months or so his office would find antigovernment leaflets left on the streets. Antigovernment graffiti and posters appear periodically.”
January 2003: This time in a story published in the Independent, Becker reports on how clandestine organizations of North Korean Christians smuggle Bibles and maintain contact with the outside world, and with each other.
Febuary 2003: Becker reports on how the Christian underground has established a clandestine network for moving people in and out of North Korea [SF Gate].
September 2003: Refugee flows and robberies by North Korean soldiers who have turned to banditry causes China to deploy thousands of troops to its border with North Korea.
March 2004: The BBC reports on another hunger strike by North Korean refugees in a Chinese detention center. Most, if not all, are eventually sent back to a grim fate in North Korea.
November 2004: Der Spiegel reports: “The people of North Korea are not as submissive as they appear to be. Unnoticed by the outside world, strong opposition to the regime of dictator Kim Jong Il is beginning to appear.” The story is almost entirely based on Becker’s reports.
December 2004: The Guardian reports that EU diplomats in Pyongyang have been warned to prepare for “sudden change” inside North Korea. It is just one of many similar predictions that have yet to be realized.
January 2005: Two intrepid reporters from the Times of London sneak into North Korea masquerading as potential investors. They bring back a report of widespread discontent, and of the growth of underground churches and cross-border smuggling cells. (They also speculate, incorrectly, that Kim Jong Il had been removed from power, which makes them no worse than me.)
That month, a smuggled videotape documents the display of dissident slogans and graffiti inside North Korea. The group calls itself “Young Comrades for Freedom.”
March 2005: A similar report from the New York Times — North Koreans immediately become disillusioned when they see the prosperity of China. Some, of course, bring news of life in China back to their homeland. That month, North Korea launches a security crackdown in the Northeast.
April 2005: In an incident that was much debated and perhaps overstated in the blogosphere, a minor soccer riot erupted in Pyongyang, over a disputed call. What made the event exceptional was that foreign journalists observed and photographed conflict between North Korean citizens and authorities. In light of the other incidents reported above, however, this incident seems significant mainly for its power to disturb our assumptions about things we aren’t permitted to see.
A similar from the New York Times — North Koreans immediately become disillusioned when they see the prosperity of China. Some, of course, bring news of life in China back to their homeland. That month, North Korea launches in the Northeast. In an incident that was much debated and perhaps overstated in the blogosphere, a minor erupted in Pyongyang, over a disputed call. What made the event exceptional was that foreign journalists conflict between North Korean citizens and authorities. In light of the other incidents reported above, however, this incident seems significant mainly for its power to disturb our assumptions about things we aren’t permitted to see.
May 2005: Newsweek reports that an influx of smuggled VCR and DVD movies and cell phones are showing North Koreans the “prosperity gap” betweent their society and the outside world: “‘Whenever I was here, I watched South Korean TV,” she says. “Then when I went back to the North, I told my relatives about it. They realized it’s a great place to live, and now they want to go, too.‘”
November 2005: Much more of the same, courtesy of DPRK studies. I respectfully disagree with Richardson’s partial attribution of credit to the Sunshine policy for what North Koreans risked the gulag (or worse) to smuggle across the border, however.
That same month, a detailed 2005 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom concludes that the suppression has insulated even North Korea’s discontented from religion: “Most [refugee] respondents said that they had never seen or encountered any religious activity, places of worship, religious literature, or clerical officials prior to fleeing to China.” That same month, an L.A. Times report (via the excellent Barbara Demick) notes that Christianity continues to win converts among North Korean refugees in China, who sometimes bring their faith back to their homeland.
Meanwhile, Stratfor reports on declining morale in the military.
January 2006: The Donga-A Ilbo reports four simultaneous gunbattles took place along the Chinese-North Korean border in late December, 2005. Blogs, including this one and Rantburg, pick up the story, as does the Daily NK. Again, the information is fragmentary. The reported attack followed a threat by ex-North Korean Special Forces defectors to attack border posts in the area, although no connection is ever established between the reported attacks and the threats.
February 2006: More anti-government leaflets reported, at Onsong [via the Daily NK].
April 2006: In the face of dwindling food supplies and more mass mobilizations of the population, discontent is again reportedly on the rise in North Korea [via the Daily NK].
May 2006: Resistance “guerrilla camera” films North Korean soldiers in the act of diverting a train of South Korean food aid. The cameraman claims to have filmed the food aid back in the military’s custody after the date when monitors had certified that it had been distributed to ordinary people. [Daily NK]
September 2006: The Russian North Korea expert Dr. Andrei Lankov publishes a ground-breaking study, “The Natural Death of North Korean Stalinism,” which describes the advancing breakdown of the regime’s control over information, the increasing porousness of North Korea’s borders despite the government’s redoubled efforts to seal them, and the spread of apathy among the people.
October 2006: “An underground resistance movement in North Korea, capable of smuggling out videos of executions and staging violent acts of defiance, has emerged as the Kim Jong-il regime faces international sanctions for testing a nuclear bomb.” [The Australian]
October 2006: “The increasing ease with which people are able to buy their way out of North Korea suggests that, beneath the images of goose-stepping soldiers in Pyongyang, the capital, the government’s still considerable ability to control its citizens is diminishing, according to North Korean defectors, brokers, South Korean Christian missionaries and other experts on the subject.” [N.Y. Times]
November 2006: Merchants in the city of Hoeryong stage an unprecedented mass protest when authorities try to shut down a market where the merchants had already purchased licenses to set up stalls. Authorities later arrest 20 ringleaders of the protest. One is reportedly executed, or dies in custody.
December 2006: The Daily NK reports that on December 20th, 120 prisoners escaped from Camp 16, Hwasong, North Hamgyeong Province. The escape shows signs of help from an underground organization, including the use of a getaway car. Weeks later, scores of prisoners were still at large, presumably having found food and shelter that allowed them to move from that remote area to urban areas and into China. [Daily NK; see also OFK images of the camp].
December 2006: It’s still not possible to measure public opinion in North Korea, but the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea publishes the next best thing: a remarkable survey by Yoonok Chang that interviewed a total of 1,346 North Korean refugees, most of them hiding in China. Although refugees certainly represent a skewed sample — half of them came from North Hamgyeong Provice alone — their responses provide the first real evidence that a segment of the North Korean population is deeply discontented with the regime.
- 89% had heard about living conditions in China through “word of mouth.”
- 64% would prefer to live in South Korea; 19% chose the United States, despite all of their conditioning; 14% chose China.
- 67% percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that the food situation was improving.
- A staggering 90% agreed or strongly agreed that “North Koreans are voicing their concerns about chronic food shortages. Another 6% said North Koreans were doing so “somewhat.”
- 96% said they had never received any foreign food aid.
- 73% disagreed or strongly disagreed that Kim Jong Il’s government was improving.
- 92% disagreed or strongly disagreed that the North Korean economy was improving.
- 62% disagreed or strongly disagreed that the government was trying to improve social conditions.
- 62% agreed or strongly agreed that restrictions on citizens were tightening; another 31% “somewhat” agreed.
- 79% disagreed or strongly disagreed that North Koreans believe that South Korea’s economy is worse than the North’s. Another 17% agreed that North Koreans generally still believe what the regime tells them about conditions in the South.
That is consistent with the few known facts available for comparison. Becker, for example, quotes “almost all” refugees he interviewed as claiming that in the mid- to late-1990s, they had seen anti-government leaflets and slogans such as “Down with Kim Jong Il,” as well as actual protests. Starting at page 201 of his book, he describes vandalism of murals, statues, and portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in too much detail to even summarize here. Becker also describes numerous other, but less detailed, reports of dissent and attempted mutinies in the Army.
January 2007: Corruption takes a visible toll among the North Korean border guards force. The government sentences two to death for taking bribes. In response, 20 more drop their guns, desert, and cross the border into China. Of these, two are later interviewed on Japanese television. Ten of the guards are reportedly recaptured.
February 2007: The authorities launch a new crackdown on dissent and capitalism in the city of Hoeryong, in the far northeast. Despite the crackdown, two separate jailbreaks are reported in the city later that month. The escapees are said to have been cross-border smugglers [Daily NK].
February 2007: A Japanese NGO reports that it was able to bribe North Korea border guards, hire local laborers, and transport one ton of rice, clothing, and other humanitarian supplies directly to hungry people in North Hamgyeong Province. [Life Funds for North Korean Refugees]
Isolated acts of rebellion are not a threat to a regime whose security apparatus is this well developed. Even this regime, however, might not be able to cope with a general uprising in multiple cities and counties, particularly given the amount of dissent that undoubtedly exists within the military, based on its history. Nor could it cope, for long, with a costly insurgency that targeted North Korea’s fragile infrastructure: its few major roads, and its disintegrating roads and electrical grid. That’s why it’s essential for us to listen to what North Korean refugees tell us about broadcasting into the North. Broadcasts can help spread dissident thoughts, persuade people that they are not alone in their discontent, and spread the word of any uprising quickly.
Providing radios and broadcasting to the North Korean people is authorized by U.S. law — the Sections 103 and 104 of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. Unfortunately, the State Department, eager not to upset the atmosphere of negotiations in which it invests great hope, has used its influence to stall the appropriation of the funds and the implementation of the Act.
[Because this post is very research intensive, I will continue to update it from time to time.]