In the News – What North Koreans really think of Kim Jong-un
His elevation to leadership of one of the world’s most secretive and dangerous regimes was the subject of speculation and rumour around the globe.
But now it has emerged that Kim Jong-un, the podgy 28-year-old who took the helm of North Korea after his father died last year is also the subject of clandestine gossip within his own insulated state.
In secret telephone conversations with activist groups based in democratic South Korea, residents of the North have revealed their own doubts about the man anointed as the Great Successor and Supreme Commander, despite all the revolutionary rhetoric with which they are bombarded.
“He is a four-star general aged 28,” observed a trader, Im Seong-taek. “When did he do his time in the army to get those stars? It’s nonsense.”
A farmer in the far north of the country said: “He doesn’t seem to be much use. A young person with his belly sticking out looks lazy.”
Such comments are the fruits of a growing effort by South Koreans – often aided by defectors from the North who have made their way to Seoul, the capital of the South, by circuitous routes – to use gradually spreading mobile telephone technology to find out what North Koreans really think.
North Korea’s official mobile telephone network, built and run by an Egyptian firm, only has an estimated 600,000 users – mostly privileged members of the Communist Party elite who would not risk contacting someone abroad.
But increasing numbers of people, especially in the north of the country near the border with China, now have mobile telephones that use the Chinese mobile network, enabling them – if they dare – to make and receive calls from some of the 30,000 defectors now living in South Korea.
In a dingy backstreet office close to the centre of Seoul Lee Sok-young took a call. “Hello? Hello?” The 41-year-old, who himself escaped five years ago, cursed. “Bad connection!”
He called back twice before finally getting through and beginning the conversation.
“Why haven’t you been in touch? I see. Is all OK? How are rice prices? And the exchange rate? How’s life generally – what’s the feeling since the change? 12 o’clock next time, you say? OK.”
The call finished, Mr Lee played back his mobile telephone’s recording of the conversation, making careful notes. The woman’s voice had a distinct accent and high-pitched lilt that marked her out to Korean ears as a native of the north.
“She’s a relative,” he said. “I won’t comment on her job. She says it’s been difficult to get through by mobile since Kim Jong-il died and Kim Jong-un took over, because of signal interference.
“She says the Chinese currency exchange rate is going up, but rice prices are stable. There’s been no difference in her life since Kim died. Things are the same. We’ll speak again at midnight.”
Such communication through the bamboo curtain would have impossible five years ago, but the illicit smuggling of Chinese mobile telephones across the northern border has led to a mushrooming of groups in the South organising regular contact with people in the North to find out what is really going on.
Detailed information of the kind now being gathered daily would previously have been beyond the reach even of national intelligence agencies – and its dissemination clearly annoys the North’s rigid rulers.
Daily NK, the information website for which Mr Lee works, reported that people in the north-east who had not shown insufficient sorrow at Kim Jong-il’s death were forced to undergo self-criticism sessions and then sent to labour camps in punishment.
Korea Central News Agency in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, denounced The Daily NK as “reptile media”, declaring in a report: “This evil deed could be done only by the despicable guys hell-bent on letting loose invectives and telling lies.”
The organisation is one of around 20 such groups that gather information on North Korea, and is funded jointly by the Bank of Korea, which is keen to harvest economic data about the North, and by the US National Endowment for Democracy, set up to promote political freedom around the world.
Criticism from the North is water off a duck’s back to Park In-ho, a South Korean and former left-winger who heads Daily NK. “It’s an honour,” he said.
Daily NK claims to have about 200 sources inside North Korea, though staff members do not share contacts, for security reasons. As Chinese mobile phone signals only reach about 10 miles into the country, most sources either live in the border area or travel to it for calls at pre-arranged times. Some are traders who mostly use their phones to do business in China.
None are at the highest party levels, but contacts include local government and lower-level military officials who can paint an authentic picture of daily life. They describe a people deeply disillusioned by their leadership.
“Even in trains and restaurants, people say, ‘What is the government doing for us?'” said Shin Ju-hyun, Daily NK’s editor. “They complain about officials.
“In public they can’t complain about Kim Jong-un or about his father before him. But there is gossip about Kim Jong-un. The state says he is a computer or military expert, but people say, ‘Can it be true? He’s too young, he’s just a prince.'”
Grief at Kim Jong-il’s death was false, said Mr Lee, who has spoken to several contacts since the funeral. “People go out, bow to the statues, show the appropriate amount of emotion and go home. Their lives have not changed.”
The broader picture that emerges is of poverty, misery and depression. Special rations of corn soup and rice were handed out to families in some parts of the country to enable them to celebrate the most recent Lunar New Year, but the allowances were small – enough for only three or five days – and extra measures of cooking oil were disappointingly even more meagre.
North Korea publishes no economic data, and there is a growing disparity in income levels nationwide, but Daily NK research suggests the average wage is around 4-5,000 won per month, only enough for a few days’ rice at current rice prices.
“I ask my contacts various things, but even if I ask a specific question – like the market price of rice – they all tell me how hard life is,” Mr Lee said.
Yet the conversations also betray a startling sense that in some respects the state’s control of life beyond the capital is fraying.
The economy is increasingly capitalistic: markets bustle nationwide, replacing the failed state distribution system. A class of have-nots has been created, and many informants know people who have committed suicide.
“In Chosun [North Korea] today, people who live hungry are treated as fools,” one trader told Daily NK. “Whether it be trading, theft, whatever the way, you must live somehow.
The “arduous march” – the famines that killed perhaps 2 million people in the late 1990s – bred a terrible callousness. “The simple and honest people all died,” the trader said. “The rest know how to survive.”
There is little remaining confidence in the North Korean won, and since a shock internal devaluation just over two years ago which destroyed the value of everybody’s savings, most trading activity now takes place in foreign currency.
“My savings are all in US dollars,” Kim Eun-hye, a market trader who lost most of her assets, told Daily NK. “Even if the government says foreign currencies are prohibited, we save only US dollars or Chinese yuan.”
Meanwhile South Korean television dramas are so popular that pirated DVDs find their way into North Korea within 30 days of episodes first being aired. This trend, too, seems uncontrollable. “They can punish the distributors, but if they punished the consumers, half of North Korea would be in the camps” said Mr Shin.
South Korean music is equally popular. “In Pyongyang, they use cassette players to play South Korean songs a lot,” a factory technician and Daily NK informant revealed. “It’s a really trivial thing, but still [the government] try to regulate it. So we get rid of the lyrics and just dance to the music.”
Yet the regime’s network of prison camps, where three generations of a family may be punished for the political “crimes” of one member, is spoken of in hushed terms among North Koreans – and those making illicit telephone calls abroad may end up there too.
Choi Song-min, 56, who escaped to Seoul only last year, said that plain clothed security agents carried concealed mobile telephone detectors to catch people breaking the law.
A former soldier turned currency trader, he himself had just ended a call when three armed agents rapped on his door and forced their way into his flat. They had a recording of his phone conversation and quickly found his mobile telephone, hidden in a wardrobe.
He was offered the choice of a fine or prison, and requested the former – but was staggered at the price: 600,000 North Korean won, equivalent to 20 years’ average wage. “Had I been caught talking to South Korea, things would have been far worse.”
Repression is still savage. “In North Korea, when you wear a military uniform, you wear the skin of a tiger,” said Oh Gil-tae, a border guard who is another Daily NK informant. “You should make people scared.”
Discussing interrogation techniques, Oh noted that women suspects often wet themselves before their beating begins. And when it does, it is brutal. “The butt of the 1958 automatic rifle does not break easily,” Oh said. “But the ’68 version does, the butt snaps off completely.”
So for now, Mr Shin believes, the chance of any kind of uprising against Kim Jong-un is remote.
“Nine out of ten of my friends in North Korea say, ‘We should change the government, but can’t,” he said. “The best way to bring down North Korea is pressure from outside. I want to add to that pressure by spreading information.”
Original article can be found here.