In early March, just two months after the death of Kim Jong Il, Daily NK dispatched a team to Yanji and Jian, cities in the Sino-North Korean border region, to take a closer look at trends in public opinion and the way people inside North Korea are currently living. The team organized interviews with six North Korean citizens visiting the two cities.
They told Daily NK with one voice that they have been suffering considerably since the death of Kim Jong Il; in particular, this has been due to trade and internal travel controls, something which makes sense given that the majority of the interviewees were either private traders or workers dispatched by trade enterprises affiliated with state organs.
The voices featured did not come from a single region; opinion emerged from Pyongyang, Chongjin on the east coast of North Hamkyung Province, further down the coast in Hamheung, South Hamkyung Province, from Hyesan, just across the border from Changbai in China, Kangye in Jagang Province and also Sariwon in South Hwanghae Province.
The middle aged female trader from Kangye told Daily NK, “Of course people are only concerned with the problem of survival; they’re not interested in General Kim Jong Eun all that much. Having said that, life is hard and we just think it would be good if it all changed. Some people, since they feel no love for him at all, say that through a war or death they just want some kind of change.”
“In January, the month after the General’s death, people started to talk about General Kim being young and having no experience once again,” she went on. “People are both doubtful and quite worried about whether he can lead the country properly given his lack of experience.”
“How will General Kim go about things? It hasn’t been long so we have to wait and see,” she pointed out. “I don’t know whether Chosun will change for the better, but people say General Kim is gutsy; I’m curious to see what that kind of guts that is and how he goes about changing Chosun.”
The trade company employee from Chongjin said, “General Kim does all the onsite guidance visits and they say he’s going to be like his father, but people just want him to let them be. That basically means being allowed to earn a living.”
“Some people say war is preferable; they don’t even care if they die. They say at least if there was a war it would lead to reform and opening. What have you got to gain expecting things from the new leader? He’s placed more restrictions on trade made it harder for people to live so they don’t know what to do; I don’t expect anything from him.”
The trading man in his 50s from Pyongyang gave a less extreme, though only marginally more positive, assessment, saying, “To be honest, public feeling about General Kim Jong Eun is of uncertainty. People are uncomfortable because they don’t know how Chosun is going to change. Frankly speaking, because life for the people right now is so hard and yet they can see cadres still living the good life, there’s a feeling that any change would be good.”
The younger woman from Hyesan pointed to Kim Jong Eun’s lack of on-the-job training as a source of concern, saying, “General Kim shadowed his father for barely a year, so he couldn’t learn much. There’s a big difference between that and the General, who followed the Suryeong around for fully ten years. People worry that one year might not have been long enough.”