Collapsing pillars of support to Kim Jong Il regime

[imText1]North Korea has been and is one of the most enigmatic countries in the world. No outsider has unrestricted access to the reality of North Korean society let alone to its Kremlin in Pyongyang. However, the iron curtain has been lifted little by little by the refugees, believed to number in the hundreds of thousands, who have fled the isolated country for China.

Recently, with their increasing use of Chinese cell phones along borders they have provided near instantaneous news to the outside.

Based on their stories and the testimony of defectors, we can see that very significant changes are taking place politically, socially, and economically in North Korea in a way that may weaken the regime of the ‘Dear Leader,’ Kim Jong Il. The first and most important is the de-facto free flow of information throughout the country. Before the food shortages of the mid-1990s, all information from without and much of that from within was strictly controlled. People could not move from city to city without travel permits and these were only issued to ordinary citizens for events such as the marriages and funerals of relatives.

Now, due to the collapse of the food distribution system and rampant government corruption, people can easily bribe police officers to procure a travel permit. In the winter of 2004, two US dollars are enough for the passage from one province to another and five dollars to Pyongyang and Chinese border district according to NKnet. For 30 dollars, you could cross the Tumen and Yalu rivers into China. You can acquire an official passport with 70$.

This de facto freedom of mobility has created a vast flow of information from the outside. According to defectors, people now believe that in China even dogs eat better than people do in North Korea. They also know that the Chinese can freely criticize the top leaders of their government and the communist party. The penalty for such free expression in North Korea is death. Recently, South Korean pop songs, soap operas, and movies are quite prevalent among North Korean people. These are accessible by Chinese cassette players and VCRs.

Such exposure has led to the realization that the difficulties and atrocities brought upon them does not originate from outside imperialist countries, such as the United States, but from within their country, mainly from their own political leaders. Recently, individual grassroots opposition has criticized police officers on the street or at the station for interfering in their economic activities. With family and friends, people also criticize Kim Jong Il for his inability to manage the country. This was unimaginable just a few years ago. As a result, the personality cult surrounding Kim, the ideological support pillar of North Korean regime, is being challenged.

Secondly, the economic pillar holding up the regime support has all but collapsed. Defectors say that insufficient food rations and salaries have forced citizens to earn their own living. Before the food shortage, the government almost entirely controlled the economic lives of people through collectivized farms and state-owned factories. There were no markets. Now, the regime has no other alternative but to tacitly recognize black markets as the only lifeline for the people. Markets, though unauthorized by the government, began to spread across the country with amazing speed after the famine. Only in Pyongyang and some other militarily important regions and industrial sectors did food continue to be distributed. But even there, the control has loosened up considerably.

In the meantime, the haphazard economic reform of the government since July 1 of 2002 has rather caused tremendous inflation as much as 1000% in terms of the price of rice for two years, widening the economic gap between the rich and poor. In such a situation, the ability and willingness to engage in private business became the major guarantee of physical survival. As a result, people have realized that they can survive without Kim Jong-il. It is becoming apparent to North Koreans that Kim is neither their god nor even their helper. Some even feel he is an obstacle.

Thirdly, the Dear Leader’s political pillar of support is also deteriorating. Members of the ruling (North) Korean Workers’ Party and state security officers have become more loyal to money than to Kim. Some security officers have suggested to foreigners that they can sell film of the gulag for US$10,000. Border guards reportedly try to recruit people willing to pay to cross the rivers into China. According to high-ranking defectors, top level officials have even launched a quiet campaign to save around US$300,000 per family for use in the event of regime collapse. Consequently, Kim Jong Il has fewer people he can trust. His brother in law, Jang Sung Taek, a long-time, trusted insider until last year, is known to have recently been purged.

From Kim Jong Il’s perspective, this increasingly depressing reality underscores the need to maintain the support of the military. The unifying centerpiece of his ‘military-first’ policy is the nuclear weapons program. He is unlikely to bow to the pressure from the international community to give this up as it would deal a fatal blow to his power base.

But, with the citizens loosing their long-held loyalty to the regime, it is only a matter of time before the army follows suit.