Why an unprecedented mass defection could be a sign of instability in North Korea

Yonhap is reporting this morning that 13 North Koreans —12 women and a male manager working at one of its overseas restaurants in an unidentified country — have defected and arrived safely in South Korea. The impetus for this unprecedented mass defection? Sanctions — which never work, so we’ve been told.

“As the international community has slapped sanctions on the North, North Korean restaurants in foreign countries are known to be feeling the pinch,” Jeong Joon-hee, a ministry spokesman, told a press briefing. “North Koreans in overseas restaurants are believed to be under heavy pressure to send money to their country.” [….]

The spokesman said that the latest defection indicates that the tougher U.N. sanctions have begun to generate impacts on curbing the North. [Yonhap]

Feel free to insert your own “women cross DMZ” snark in the comments. There was another factor at work here, too: “[T]he North Koreans recently decided to defect to Seoul because they realized the reality of South Korea by watching South Korean TV dramas and movies and were disillusioned with the North’s ideological campaigns.” 

So … a combination of information operations to undermine the regime ideologically and sanctions to undermine its capacity to control its subjects unraveled Kim Jong-un’s control, and with astonishing speed.

I wonder why no one ever thought of that before.

I wrote about the financial difficulties North Korean restaurants have faced recently in this post, but I still find this report astonishing and deeply significant on several levels. Mass defections from North Korea are still relatively rare. The few we do hear about tend to involve fishing boats that “drift” south, sometimes while inexplicably carrying women and children. Even then, the regime’s psychological hold is so strong that some of those aboard go back.

What’s extraordinary about this mass defection is that these restaurant workers are hand-picked, core-class loyalists. Here’s a short list of the levels of significance here:

1. Sanctions are undoing the regime’s financial bindings;

2. The regime is incapable of duct-taping those bindings together with resources from other state organs, possibly because those organs are functioning as semi-independent and competing feifdoms;

3. If the financial bindings come undone, loyalty and ideology aren’t enough to hold people;

4. At least some members of the core class — indeed, some of its most visible members — are disgruntled;

5. Disgruntled members of the core class are willing to share and conspire about their disgruntlement with each other, including the guy whose job it was to “manage” them, and act on it;

6. The South Korean government is willing to help North Koreans act on their disgruntlement; and

7. The South Korean government is willing to talk about all of this publicly, and thus inflict severe wounds to the regime’s morale, and possibly encourage other defections.

I can’t think of any other example of a mass defection by members of North Korea’s elite class. This is unprecedented. One likely consequence of it is that the regime itself will begin to call its restaurant workers home, and possibly shut down its other restaurants. As I’ve noted, the restaurants are probably more important as a cover for money laundering than for the income they generate. That means that the closure of the restaurants will put additional pressure on the regime’s foreign income streams.

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This report comes just as I’d finished smelting down weeks of reporting on the question we’re all asking ourselves right now — could sanctions also destabilize North Korea itself? The people with the best information — the North Korean security forces — seem to think so. Various reports have emerged to suggest that sanctions are contributing to a decline in morale at all levels of North Korean society. Some cadres are revealing a loss of confidence in Kim Jong-un’s leadership, and in his capacity to survive. 

“Party cadres these days do not feel a true sense of loyalty towards the regime, but have rather been forced to demonstrate it for a long period of time. Cadres have been saying among themselves that the recent string of events is yet another example of Kim Jong Un putting his own gains ahead of the fate of the nation.” [Daily NK]

The closure of Kaesong hurt the morale of cadres who knew of its importance in the regime’s finances, and the workers who found it a better place to work than any of the alternatives, despite the ethical problems it raised from our perspective.

For poor North Koreans, food prices are still mostly stable. The state gives them next to nothing, and another word for “nothing left to lose” is “freedom.”

A resident in Samsu County, Ryanggang Province, who is aware of the fresh sanctions levied against North Korea, also weighed in, noting, “It’s not as if this is our first or second round of international sanctions, so from a citizen’s perspective none of this is really a surprise, but the cadres appear to be smoldering. This is because support from South Korea and the UN never trickled down to us; the high-ranking cadres sucked it all up for themselves.”

As word of looming sanctions churns in North Korea’s rumor mill, the public’s belief in the regime’s propaganda is wavering. Domestic media outlets and official rhetoric are devoid of any mention of the sanctions, instead attempting to craft a narrative of international support for the endeavors. But for the public, past is prelude, and they therefore fully expect ramifications. [Daily NK]

People are questioning the propaganda that’s being fed to them. Many of them appear to have a vague sense that Kim Jong-un provoked the U.S., the U.N., and South Korea to imposing and enforcing sanctions.

“The TV [Korean Central Television, or KCTV] and the Rodong Sinmun [Party-run publication] say it was a satellite, but people have already heard about KIC shutting down and they automatically connect the dots that the launch served another purpose. The other thing is that in the footage surrounding the event, the scientists commended for their efforts were seated right next to soldiers. So some people are saying it seems as though whatever happened might have had some connection to the military.”

For some, like one North Korean resident currently in China on a personal travel visa, these seeds of doubt grow into full blown certainty with the right exposure. “When I came to China, I felt as  though we have really been living in the dark. The propaganda that says Kim Jong Un is guiding us so that the people can live well is nothing more than him trying to build up his ‘achievements,’” she told Daily NK.

“If the public at large were to see and understand this, it would blow things wide open. People would doubtless point their finger at Kim Jong Un’s inept governance and its direct connection to their suffering.” [Daily NK]

The regime (with help from China) has also clamped down on the borders, as I discussed here. That may have a greater impact on the food supply in the markets than sanctions. Although the development of private agriculture and markets makes another North Korean famine unlikely, if the people suffer economic hardships, they could blame the regime.

That the average North Korean will be hit by these economic shifts is inexorable. With people relying solely on China to secure essential goods, a cutback on trade will challenge the supply of these daily goods. [….]

Another North Korea watcher explained, “These days, the subject of admiration and respect in the North is not the top leader but the money people secure from the markets to sustain their livelihoods.” Given this, once the sanctions start to influence the daily lives of North Koreans, it could turn people’s sentiments against Kim Jong Un and potentially lead to groups of unrest in society, the expert added.

“This is why we should work to let these people know that the international sanctions come from Kim Jong Un’s ambitions for nuclear and missile development in order to drive a wedge between the leadership and the general public,” the expert concluded. [Daily NK]

For North Korea’s poor and middle-class people, sanctions are only an indirect source of hardship, so far. The regime is squeezing them, both to extract cash from them, and to keep them busy and tired.

Complaints are rising as the people can’t receive wages or rations even if they go to work places. Several inside reporters informed that the people are coerced to deposit 1,000 won to banks every month during the period of the 70 days battle. [Rimjin-gang]

It’s pushing gold miners to increase production, extracting more “loyalty” payments from overseas party cadres and merchants, and mobilizing them for make-work projects before the party congress and Kim Il-sung’s birthday. Shockingly enough, the effect of waking people up at dawn to perform “loyalty” labor and make “loyalty” payments hasn’t been as good for loyalty as some may have hoped.

“It may just be some individuals, but there are residents who have been vocal about how mobilization is driving them crazy,” a source in South Hamgyong Province said. “Some even get into altercations with their inminban leaders, angry at the fact that people are constantly being mobilized and asked for money.” [Daily NK]

There is only so far the regime can go with these tactics before they instigate unrest, like what we saw after the 2009 currency redenomination, effectively a mass confiscation of savings. The people don’t have much to give, and what they have, they hoard.

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Meanwhile, His Corpulency’s Secret Service is working overtime to head off political instability, just as Pyongyang prepares for a May party congress where Kim Jong-un will seek to “bolster his legitimacy” by promising his subjects prosperity.

Sources who are familiar with the internal situation of North Korea say that the North’s intelligence agency has beefed up its surveillance, notably on families of defectors, and dispatched more agents to the pubic areas such as markets, train stations and Mansude, where the statues of founder Kim Il-sung and the late Kim Jong-il stand in central Pyongyang.

“Ahead of the 7th Party congress, the North’s State Security Department held a convention recently, promising to gift Kim Jong-un ‘silent borders,’” a source said in a phone interview with Yonhap News Agency, adding that the State Security Department “is strengthening control over residents, blaming them for internal information leaks to South Korean media.”

It is reportedly said that the North’s intelligence agency is cracking down on people who are trying to cross the border to China, as well as people who are talking with South Koreans by phone.

According to a civic activist group, No Chain for North Korea, Pyongyang has recently set up barbed-wired fences along the Chinese border, which were originally being used at Hoeryong concentration camp, officially known as Camp No. 22, in North Hamgyong. [Joongang Ilbo]

The regime has told the State Security Department and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) to get ready for war, presumably against its own population. In the provinces, the officers are on alert, working late nights, “inspecting their weapons storage,” and employing their inminban neighborhood-rat system.

In Pyongyang, senior officials are now required to check in and report their whereabouts every hour, and to turn in daily logs of what they did, who they met, and what they talked about. I’ve previously aggregated evidence of discontent among the higher castes, and it’s clear that Kim Jong-un is worried enough that they’ll move against him that he’s taking stringent precautions against that. The purge of Ri Yon-gil in February must surely have contributed to unease among the elites.

For what it’s worth, there is also an unconfirmed rumor that the security forces arrested “[a]t least two suspects who attempted to assassinate” His Porcine Majesty, near the border with China.

As the regime watches the elites, it’s also expecting the elites to keep the wavering classes in line by serving as role models and parroting the state’s anti-American propaganda. The MPS also has the waverers under close watch “to nip in the bud any rumblings of political unrest engendered by members of society more likely to speak out about the pressure squeezing North Korea.” Those under close watch also include “those with family members originally from South Korea prior to the war” and “the Hwagyo [overseas Chinese community].” It’s also worried that sanctions could cause a backlash among the well-connected merchants called donju, who have substantial influence over North Korea’s economy, and whose loyalty the regime is eager to hold.

So, that’s pretty much everyone, then. Which means the surveillance system may have reached its saturation point. Even MPS officers are grumbling about the long hours they’re working: “Do we really need to watch these people every single day?” “Who would do something when things are as tense as they are right now?”

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The best North Korea experts agree that Kim Jong-un needs a steady stream of hard currency now more than ever to maintain and consolidate power. Let’s start with Ken Gause, probably the single most respected student of North Korean Kremlinology. Even before this year’s nuclear test and the resulting sanctions, Gause thought the royal economy was losing money and was spending at twice the rate Kim Jong-il had to buy the support of the elites. He concluded that Kim Jong-un “doesn’t have the resources to be able to consolidate his power and buy relationships.” Gause also noted Kim Jong-un’s failure to surround himself with trusted regents and advisors since the purge of Jang Song-thaek in late 2013. This leaves Kim Jong-un exposed to power struggles around him, which would marginalize him “within the next two to five years.”

Although the recent construction boomlet in Pyongyang and the widening gap between rich and poor caused me to suspect that the regime’s finances had improved, other reports support Gause’s view that the North Korean economy declined last year, due to falling coal and iron ore prices and declining demand in a slowing China. Trade accounted for around half of its official economy and the regime’s income. About 70 percent of its manufactured goods and half of the agricultural products trade in its markets came from China. Thus, the North Korean economy entered 2016 in a more vulnerable state that Kim Jong-un may have realized. Consequently, “additional pressure” on the North’s trade relations could throw its economy into “a serious crisis,” and “an economic crisis could lead to a political one.”

Seoul National University Professor Kim Byung-yeon also believes that the “[g]ood times have gone for North Korea” because of economic mismanagement and a lack of willingness to institute meaningful reforms. He also notes that “[c]ontrary to common assumptions … the North Korean economy is highly open, with trade making up half of GDP, close to the average of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member nations. If it is correct that “North Korea’s exports of mineral resources … account for 40 percent of its total export earnings,” the sudden loss of this revenue will hurt His Corpulency’s status as an economic breadwinner.

Experts cited by The Daily NK also noted that mineral exports had been a particularly important source of “loyalty funds” for Bureau 39, and that disrupting that funding “may lead to a disruption in unity among cadres of all affiliations” as they’re forced to compete for diminishing resources. 

A study by the Industry-Academy Cooperation Foundation, which is affiliated with the Seoul National University of Education, speculates that without continued economic growth, the military could also become disgruntled and feud with the ruling Workers’ Party over limited resources. Kim Jong-un has recently enhanced the status of the party and purged a number of senior military leaders.

The Director of the Korea Institute for National Unification, Choi Jin-wook, was the most unequivocal: “Collapse is coming.” Choi believes “economic weaknesses” compounded by “worsening isolation from the international community will destabilize” the regime. Its choices are to maintain its isolation or “accept institutional changes that reform and open up the country,” but seems incapable of making that choice. Consequently, “the Kim Jong Un regime’s days are numbered.”

To keep the money flowing, the regime is smuggling gold and cash, which will keep it alive for a while, at least until the press and various governments push China to ramp up its border inspections. But the implementation of U.S. and U.N. sanctions has only begun, and deadlines are approaching for implementation of the new U.S. sanctions law. That means that whatever pressure the regime is feeling now will only increase over the next year. No wonder the regime is railing about sanctions. No wonder it has begun to mix its threats with calls for dialogue and negotiations. Kim Jong-un’s survival may depend on breaking the collective political will of the states that are strangling his regime.


  1. It’s strange to think that a nuclear detonation and missile launch could have been a good move for the North Korean masses, but it appears to be the case here. Had KJU waited until after the party congress to rattle the sabre, I’m guessing he would have had an easier time skirting some or all of the sanctions or at least being able to share the blame with a “newly mobilized party centre”. In addition he would have given China a reason to pretend that it was negotiating with the party and thus wouldn’t approve sanctions. His ineptitude is incredible.


  2. Do people really expect a guy who took power in his late 20s to survive to a ripe old age, and go quietly in his sleep? Having lived in Korea (South) and knowing how conscience they are about age and rank I am surprised he has lasted this long. Granted his family name is everything, but he is not able to fill his father’s or is grandfather’s shoes.


  3. His grandfather took power at 33 and his father at – caveat emptor, opinions may vary – around 34, so age, as it were, ain’t nothing but a number.


  4. I guess I should have based my comment more on experience than age. I also wonder why everyone uses the word defectors when describing people who leave the DPRK. I would think political refugees or some other synonym would be better description for these people. Unless the legitimacy of the DPRK is not is question?


  5. There’s been a rule of thumb since Ancient Athens, that a hereditary dictatorship fails at the third generation. One can hope. Personally, I reckon the end is close …like next month. (But this is like predicting the date of the Apocalypse.) My reasoning is that, if the party meeting takes place, it will so entrench Baby Kim’s sycophants that change will not come for a decade. He has royally insulted the Chinese, turned away the South Koreans and appears to be killing or bankrupting, and certainly alienating those prior survivors who want some kind of change.
    So I think the Chinese will give it to him. He’ll be gone, dead I hope, by June.