Taking the Temperature of Post-Kim Society
- [① Are they trying to kill us or something?]
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.
Interviewees commented that the authorities have been paying little heed to public discomfort in their efforts to create an atmosphere of sorrow at the death of Kim Jong Il and loyalty to new leader Kim Jong Eun.
Those who cannot afford to pay the daily ‘stall tax’ levied on persons wishing to trade in the formal market are ordinarily forced to do business from the roadside, usually in areas adjoining formal market locations. Faced with particularly harsh repression of their activities at this time, such people have reportedly been heard to wonder, “Are they trying to kill us or something?”
Nationwide trade restrictions were apparently eased after Kim Jong Il’s birthday in mid February, but in some provincial areas this street trade has not been permitted to re-emerge.
One 50-something male trade worker from the North Korean capital told Daily NK, “They have designated the period to the end of March for mourning, so outside of the official markets all grasshopper marketplaces and alley markets are still totally shut down. Even in Pyongyang many people get by on trade, so there is a lot of discontent that it is being controlled.”
A 30-something female trader from distant Hyesan noted also, “They gave the order not to trade because they said if we traded during the mourning period it would look disorderly. They told us to go with heavy heart and visit Kim Il Sung, but that’s only really enough for one or two days. It’s inevitable that security agents will control us, but if you can’t eat and so you collapse, you can’t mourn either, right? When it comes down to it, it’s the same as ordering you to die of starvation.”
The young woman continued, “They assume that if you trade when you’re meant to be cherishing the memory of the General, you are not well prepared ideologically. Cadres just say, ‘The General has passed away; why do you want to trade? Being distracted is the problem.’ But speaking frankly, when you are trying to live, is it possible to spend time being sad?”
Another woman, a 50-something wholesaler from easterly Hamheung, conceded, “New leader comrade Kim Jong Eun has to run the country, so he can’t really avoid tightening society’s screws.”
However, she added, “It’s hard for wholesalers to get transit permits, and so it’s pretty much impossible for them to trade with people in other areas. We cannot supply the products for others to sell, so traders are in trouble across the board.”