Over the last year, this site has carefully tracked reports about the popularity or (more often) the unpopularity of Kim Jong-Un. Throughout the summer and fall of this year, numerous reports have suggested the existence of discontent — however latent, unfocused, spontaneous, and unorganized — among North Korea’s youth, within the elites, and even inside the military. Three recent reports have added to this evidence.
A North Korean defector said Pyongyang’s Workers’ Party is “imploding” due to Kim Jong Un’s inconsistent policies, and grievances against the leader have soared since he fully assumed power.
The former party cadre, who spoke to Yonhap on the condition of anonymity, said Kim often finds fault with “old and senile party members,” and his disparaging remarks have often placed him at odds with veteran politicians appointed by former leader Kim Jong Il. Kim has said North Korean politicians with decades of experience are ineffective workers, according to the defector.
Demoralized cadres have said that “there is no future” for North Korea since Kim came to power, and pessimism is pervasive in government, according to the defector identified as “A.” The defector said the execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek was shocking for North Korea’s elite, and signs of conflict have emerged since Kim replaced older bureaucrats with new appointees.
The report cites Kim Jong-Un’s purges, and perceptions that his work ethic is inferior to that of his predecessors, as the cause of the loss of trust and confidence. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]
Next, the Daily NK reports, via sources in North Pyongan and South Pyongan provinces, that young North Koreans feel more apathy than loyalty toward Kim Jong-Un.
“Ever since Kim Jong Un rose to power, North Korean students dramatically reduced their usage of the word ‘loyalty.’ Because the residents receive zero tangible benefits from the regime, their feeling of loyalty or appreciation is virtually nonexistent,” a source in South Pyongan reported to Daily NK on October 2nd.
This trend was cross-checked with an additional source in North Pyongan Province.
She added, “In years past, residents were a bit more susceptible to feelings of fondness resulting from the deification of North Korean leaders, but that effect has disappeared for the present generation. The students don’t blame or resent Kim Jong Un, they simply regard him as a man with high status. They are just not very interested in him.” [….]
“The students giggle and sneer when they watch propaganda documentaries that brag that, at the tender age of three, Kim Jong Un was able to spell difficult words like Kwangmyeongseong Changa (‘hopeful paean’),” she asserted. [….]
“The content of the propaganda material is so unrealistic. Practically no one buys into it these days. In the past, political interactions were secret and mysterious, but these days everyone knows that a bribe is the only thing that makes the authorities do their job. That’s when people began to think that even ’The Marshal’ Kim Jong Un is just a regular guy,’” she explained.
“That’s why residents, and students especially, continue to confidently watch illegal South Korean movies and dramas despite crackdowns by the regime. Small cracks are emerging on the regime’s iron tight grip on society and the younger generation is exhibiting significant differences in their mentality.” [Daily NK]
As Stephan Haggard notes, His Corpulency has specifically appealed to the young for their support. I wonder if Kim Jong-Un’s sources have told him what the Daily NK‘s sources have told its reporters.
The most sensational of the three reports, from Radio Free Asia, claims that someone in Pyongsong, South Pyongan, has been defacing propaganda posters:
Posters glorifying North Korea’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party are being defaced across the country in a wave of popular resentment against burdens imposed in preparation for celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the party’s founding, North Korean sources say.
Graffiti attacks against the posters were first noticed in South Pyongan province’s Pyongsong city during regional elections in July, a source in neighboring Jagang province told RFA’s Korean Service.
And despite a recently publicized order from national leader Kim Jong Un threatening harsh punishment for the attacks, “These acts of vandalism have continued until the present time,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The number of incidents is now increasing because residents of the reclusive nuclear-armed state are angered at their exploitation by the country’s central government as it prepares for elaborate celebrations, including a massive military parade, in the capital Pyongyang on Oct. 10, he said.
On Sept. 9, a poster was found damaged in Pyongsong, with references on the poster to the country as “the victor” changed to “the defeated,” a source in Yanggang province told RFA.
Two other posters were found later that night to have also been defaced, the source said, speaking on condition he not be named.
“When news of the Pyongsong incidents spread, more cases of the vandalism of posters promoting the 70th anniversary of the [North] Korean Workers’ Party began to take place nationwide,” the source said. [Radio Free Asia]
Well, maybe. I have yet to see any other reports of similar acts of protest at the times and places referred to here. There were reports over the summer that North Koreans had fought back against the confiscation of market wares, and carried out revenge attacks against the security forces.
Contrary to all of these reports, Andrei Lankov argues that Kim Jong Un is enjoying a popularity boom, particularly among younger North Koreans. His best evidence for this is a survey of North Korean refugees’ speculation about the views of other North Koreans, except that even its authors say the survey, which sampled just 100 people, is statistically useless for the measurement of any trends. Even this is still a lot more persuasive than Andrei’s anecdotal evidence:
Popular attitudes to Kim Jong Un are nicely summed up by a young female refugee who recently said in an interview, “People around my age love him. Girls kind of like him because he is handsome. …”
I suppose attraction is a subjective thing, but it’s very hard to take this seriously.
While I don’t doubt that different individuals and demographics in North Korea have highly variable views of their government and its leadership, that discontent and dissent are different things, and that discontent and loyalty might coexist to an extraordinary degree in The Land of Suspended Disbelief, Lankov is arguing against the ponderous and noticeably expanding weight of the preponderant evidence. Unpopularity does not necessarily imply instability, but it does imply fragility. North Koreans might kill out of hatred, boredom, or simple brutality. They might die for their homeland, their country, or their race. What seems increasingly doubtful is that most of them would die for Kim Jong-Un.