North Korea’s market generation are tech savvy, interested in modern trends,
and receptive to external information.
Disillusionment with the Kim Jong Un regime is growing amongst North Korea’s so-called market generation, comprised of young adults in their 20s and 30s.
“Young people are commonly referring to Kim Jong Un with the pronoun ‘him,’ indicating a lack of respect,” a source in Ryanggang Province recently told Daily NK.
Previously, residents invariably referred to leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as the ‘Suryong’ and the ‘General’ in daily conversation. While most residents refer to Kim Jong Un as the ‘Marshal’ in public, this is primarily to avoid punishment.
While many appear to be loyal followers on the outside, the process of deification of the leader has not widely succeeded. All citizens of North Korea must attend mandatory idolization education, but the market generation, who are now able to compare the regime’s claims with external information obtained through the market, have begun referring to the Supreme Leader with disrespectful titles.
In fact, there is no officially mandated title to refer to Kim Jong Un. The North Korean media including the Rodong Sinmun have been confusing residents by using various terms including ‘the Supreme Authority,’ ‘Marshal,’ and ‘Comrade (dongji),’ when referring to Kim Jong Un, while younger residents are habitually using the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘him.’
According to the source, a common claim among North Korean youths is, “He (Kim Jong Un)’ will not provide anything for us, so we need to rely on ourselves to make a living.” Meanwhile, the regime has ramped up idolization efforts for Kim Jong Un, but in contrast to former leaders, his authority has not been firmly implanted in the minds of the population.
The market generation, who experienced mass starvation in the mid 1990s, have realized the importance of the market as an alternative to the dysfunctional state distribution system and refuse to believe the regime’s propaganda. They receptive to external information, and are showing clearly different opinions and values from the older generation.
The systematic control of the Workers’ Party over the population has also significantly weakened.
The North Korean government previously sought to maintain absolute control over the lives and thoughts of every individual by dividing the whole population into sectored divisions. In 1974, Kim Jong Il emerged as the official successor to Kim Il Sung and announced the ‘Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System,’ and government control over the residents was greatly increased.
The Party’s Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System, which acts as the supreme law of North Korea, stipulates that, ‘Residents must actively participate in state projects led by local organizations held every second day or on a weekly basis. In doing so, they must discipline themselves based on the Suryong’s instructions and Party policy to elevate their way of living to a higher spiritual level’ (Article 8, Clause 5). The order means that every Party member must participate in self-criticism sessions held by the Party, and residents must attend similar sessions held by their local labor organizations.
But this form of organizational control has been reduced to a series of merely inconvenient formalities. Since the implementation of the ‘July 1 Economic Reforms’ in 2002 and the ‘legalization of the general markets’ in 2003, the encouragement of state enterprises and individuals to engage in private economic activities has increased, while the authority of the local labor organizations has waned. As the importance of market principles has been realized, state enterprises have instead switched their attention to the ‘8.3 Movement,’ in which individuals can pay allotted fees to the enterprises they are assigned to and keep the rest of their earnings for themselves.
For this reason, residents are widely engaging in personal business while being nominally registered on the workforces of state enterprises. These companies provide various benefits to those who pay, including permission to conduct private business, the moving of self-criticism sessions from weekly to monthly, and permitting absence from various state-mandated activities.
“Until in 2010, only those who had good business acumen or were wealthy donju could engage in 8.3 activities. Back then, people who didn’t show up to work at the state-run enterprises were strongly punished for being ‘anti-socialist elements.’ The residents were forced to go to work even when the enterprises could not pay them or produce anything at all due to a lack of materials,” said Lee Jung Hee (alias, in her 40s), a North Korean defector who was previously a member of the donju (newly affluent middle class) in North Pyongan Province.
The 8.3 system has become widely adopted within the last two to three years, and there is an increasing number of youths who do not work at any of the state-run enterprises. “Except for some profitable trading companies, most of the ordinary factory enterprises have stopped operating. Therefore, most people are not working at these places at all, particularly the younger generation,” a source in Ryanggang Province said.
The management at these state enterprises are instead instructing those not coming to work to “report their whereabouts,” and implicitly encouraging them to engage in private business.
In light of these developments, Kim Jong Un reportedly ordered a “reinvestigation of those who are unemployed and the preparation of countermeasures” in January. Agents seeking to root out such conduct sporadically launched crackdowns on younger individuals who were not working at the state enterprises, but the extent of control is comparatively weaker than in times past.
Kim Cheol Min (alias; a defector in his 30s), who makes regular calls to family in North Korea said, “Even if people go to work (at state enterprises), there is no work to be done and the companies cannot even pay them. So the authorities will find it difficult to severely punish young unemployed individuals like they used to.”
As a result, it is being said that the ‘collective’ mindset of the North Korean people is being slowly replaced by the concept of individualism among the youths. The idea of devoting one’s life for the Supreme Leader and national development is becoming decidedly less attractive.
Since coming to power, Kim Jong Un struggled to bring discipline to the disorganized youth institutions. Last year, he convened a meeting of the Socialist Youth League, the first in 23 years, renaming the ‘Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League’ into the ‘Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League.’ He has repeatedly emphasized the unity of the Youth League at every major political event to date.
However, securing loyalty from the younger generation will be an enormous challenge. The younger generation is increasingly regarding their unwanted duty as ‘guards of the revolution’ as burdensome.