Over the last year, this site has closely tracked growing signs that North Korea’s elites are discontented with Kim Jong-un’s leadership and fearful of being purged, and of falling morale and discipline in the North Korean military. More recently, we’ve seen extraordinary outbreaks of dissent among North Korea’s overseas workers, including the group defection of 13 restaurant workers and a reported mutiny by 100 workers in Kuwait.
Whether these incidents reflect popular sentiment inside North Korea itself is a harder question to answer. Some remarkable reports of dissent and resistance have emerged from North Korea recently, but Kim Jong-un’s crackdown on the borders means that the reports take longer to emerge, and they’re more difficult to verify. But for those who are watching for them, the signs are there.
The confrontation is so reminiscent of one shown in the 2014 PBS Frontline documentary, “The Secret State of North Korea,” that I had to compare the two clips to be sure they weren’t the same. Of course, there was nothing overtly political about this incident. Similarly, a reported bank robbery in the city of Chongjin may not have been politically motivated, either, but it would represent an extraordinary act of lawlessness for North Korea. It suggests that beyond the limits of Pyongyang, North Korea could become what John Lee recently described as “a failed state.”
Other incidents have been expressly political. Radio Free Asia reports that in the northeastern city of Chongjin, some brave soul stole the North Korean flag from the flagpole in front of city hall overnight. On the night of Kim Il-sung’s birthday.
In late March, the authorities found anti-regime leaflets and graffiti in public places in Pyongsong, Hamhung, Chongjin, and even Pyongyang.
But the case that has received the most attention occurred at a train station in the town of Posong in Samsu county, Yanggang province, through which express trains to Pyongyang pass. [….]
“The authorities are trying to hunt down suspects whose handwriting matches that of the writing,” he told RFA’s Korean Service. “The leaflet was reportedly plastered right below the portrait of [former leader] Kim Il Sung on a wall.” [….]
“The leaflet found last New Year’s Day said, ‘Kim Jong Un is a son of b**** in Chinese ink,” the source said. “There were so many people from across the country mobilized at Posong station on Jan. 1st for the New Year’s Day celebrations that the news may have spread nationwide.” [Radio Free Asia]
News of the incident “spread like wildfire” at a political rally whose purpose (ironically, if predictably) was to idolize His Porcine Majesty. The Daily NK also publishes a similar report of anti-regime graffiti at Hyesan, in Ryanggang Province, criticizing the party congress. The Daily NK claims to have corroboration from multiple sources for the report.
The locations of these incidents are too far apart to be the work of one individual, and the consistency of the reports provides a degree of mutual corroboration. Although the possibility exists that this was the coordinated work of an organization, it’s more likely that these are uncoordinated and spontaneous outbreaks of dissent across North Korea. Not for the first time, apparently:
“Last October, people across the country defaced posters glorifying North Korea’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party to show their resentment against the burdens the government imposed upon them in preparation for celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the party’s founding, RFA reported. [Radio Free Asia]
This party congress was supposed to be an occasion for deifying His Corpulency, reinforcing loyalty to the state, and consolidating power by shifting it to a younger generation of officials who are ostensibly loyal to Kim Jong-un. Instead, something closer to the opposite appears to have happened. The younger generation tends to be more loyal to its financial interests than to the old ideology. The people have been exhausted by mass mobilizations, harangued with dull lectures, and stultified by slogans they don’t believe anymore. They’re tired of being told that everything will be fine if they just work harder and trust in Kim Jong-un. The causes of their hardships are all too clear — confiscatory “loyalty” payments, restrictions on market activities, and crackdowns on smuggling from China and remittances from South Korea. Most of North Korea’s poor depend on one or more of these things for their survival.
“We haven’t been able to sell things properly because of the mandate forcing every resident to take part in mobilization and ‘uphold the Party with loyal beads of sweat to build a strong nation’ in relation to the 70 day battle,” a source from Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on March 6. “These days, MPS [Ministry of People’s Security, or North Korea’s police force] agents are on patrol all the time to crack down on street vendors.” [Daily NK]
“[W]orkers at all state-run enterprises must now attend daily ‘loyalty meetings’ starting at 5a.m.,” which is apparently unprecedented, even for (this part of) North Korea.
“It’s really just all about the regime getting people to start working sooner,” the source asserted. “They’re using the ‘loyalty meetings’ as an excuse to get them to the factories earlier in the day. Although the ’70-day struggle’ is undoubtedly a big part of it, it is also plausible that the authorities are trying to distract everyone from the looming specter of sanctions, keeping them so busy that they don’t have time to think about it.”
While the exact rationale behind the early hour is open to question, the collective reaction it has elicited from workers is anything but. “At first you’ve got to go in [at that time] because there’s no avoiding it,” he said, conveying sentiments shared with him by factory workers.
“Show me someone who would maintain that level of devotion otherwise! Fear of punishment is the only thing keeping anyone in line–not bona fide loyalty [to the regime].” [Daily NK]
This may increase production temporarily, but soon enough, people become exhausted, and production will drop off again. Some of the work is simply make-work: “People … have been mobilized to work around the clock in construction and clean-up of the areas around twin statues and monuments to Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung in preparation for the Workers’ Party Congress.” Workers and students have been ordered to collect scrap iron, and some are meeting their quotas by stealing, or by looting and stripping factories. The factories, in turn, have hired ex-soldiers as private security guards, who brutally beat any looters they catch.
Those who can afford to buy their way out of the extra labor; those who can’t must work longer hours. Wage payments are unreliable, and “the people are coerced to deposit 1,000 won to banks every month during the period of the 70 days battle.” State banks reportedly charge 50% commissions for withdrawals, which means that “deposits” are effectively confiscations.
For a regime that talks so much about the loyalty of its people, Pyongyang is watching them as if it’s mortally terrified of them. It has required “all North Korean citizens near the North Korea-Chinese border to carry ID on them at all times,” and stopped citizens for random checks. It is reinvestigating the backgrounds of its citizens for signs of disloyalty and keeping a close watch on those who fall under suspicion. It is destroying homes near the border with China as a countermeasure against defections. It has restricted movement in and out of Pyongyang and stepped up surveillance in residential neighborhoods, hotels, and public places.
These mobilizations, confiscations, and restrictions are partially about money, of course, but they’re also about control. This regime knows that if it can’t keep its subjects happy, the next-best way to control them is to keep them tired and busy. North Korea’s government lacks the competence to provide such essential services as sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, public health, roads, a fresh water system, public order, and baths; and it certainly can’t bring peace. Now, even its vaunted propaganda is failing. Its last remaining competency — the one on which its survival may depend — is ensuring that those who seethe at it are kept too tired, too busy, too afraid, and too isolated to communicate, combine, or organize against it.