What do North Koreans think will happen with the denuclearization process and international sanctions in 2019?

North Korean workers
North Korean workers distributing manure for use as fertilizer in this photo from January 2015. Image: Uriminzokkiri

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are scheduled to hold their second nuclear summit in Vietnam on February 27. So what do ordinary North Koreans think about this development?

Daily NK recently conducted telephone surveys with residents living in North Hamgyong Province, North Pyongan Province, and Ryanggang Province to better understand their views on denuclearization and other issues in the new year.

We have provided selected answers to each interview question featured in the survey below.

2018 inter-Korean summit
South Korean President Moon Jae In and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands at the third 2018 inter-Korean summit. Image: Pyongyang Press Corps Pool

Daily NK (DNK): Kim Jong Un said last year that he will make efforts to denuclearize through summits with all relevant parties, including the US, China and South Korea. Do you think that North Korea will experience better outcomes this year, like the end of sanctions, perhaps?

A (North Hamgyong Province): The government treats its people with such little respect that I don’t think the situation will improve this year. That being said, I do have some hope that things will improve. But I think that most of what the government does is just for show. Ordinary people don’t believe that Kim Jong Un will denuclearize the country. Everyone agrees on that point, at least.”

B (Ryanggang Province): We (the ordinary people) have no influence over denuclearization or the ending of sanctions, so I’m not sure if things will improve or not. The state takes care of all that, so they’d know best. If Kim Jong Un says he’s going to do something, I think he will. What do people like us who just work at the bottom of the food chain know about anything? But I think that North Korea will become nothing if it goes rid of its nuclear weapons. We need nuclear weapons to avoid getting dominated by other countries. Recently, the buzzword in lectures and study sessions has been “denuclearization,” but when people are frank with each other, they say that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons.

C (South Pyongan Province): I think that if sanctions were going to be suspended, it would’ve happened already. I don’t really think about whether the sanctions will end or not. Having nuclear weapons hasn’t improved our situation by very much so I’m not sure if denuclearization would make our lives any better. I think that both the North Korean and US governments fail to keep their promises.

Pyongyangites wait for the bus. Image: Pyongyang Press Corps Pool

DNK: How is life these days? What issues need to be resolved to make people’s lives better?

A: People who do business in the cities are doing ok, but many in the rural areas like mountains and farms are still facing issues getting enough food. I think that farmers need to be given what they need to farm, or they should at least be getting their own land to work so that they can increase their harvest. If that happens, then I think their lives will improve.

B: Farmers didn’t get any more than 1 kg of food from the autumn harvest (last year). Poor farmers who can’t engage in other business activities have nothing to eat, so they gathered potato ears before the ground froze. They’re working hard to survive, but they still fail to meet the (annual) quotas. I’m not sure what the issue is. We’ve lived so long like this that we really don’t know what’s wrong.

C: White rice and meat is rare, even on birthdays. On January 1, poor families had white rice for breakfast but had to settle for corn-based noodle soup for lunch and dinner. We can’t even eat meat or fish during the holidays. We had to settle for bean sprouts and tofu.

Headquarters of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers' Party
Headquarters of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party in Pyongyang. Image: Pyongyang Press Corps Pool

DNK: The outside world is interested in hearing what the people think. What are people talking about these days? How do they feel about the party (Workers’ Party of Korea)?

A: There are those who have reacted positively to Kim Jong Un visiting a number of different countries (recently). Some, however, think that his visits will only end there and nothing will really happen, and that he shouldn’t be disappointing the people like that. People also think that North Korea will never denuclearize. More people are saying that in the future the country will be hit with even more sanctions. There are also those who say that Kim Jong Un is working to improve the economy and lives of the people.

B: People talk a lot about Kim Jong Un rather than about the Party. They say that he is so young that he doesn’t understand the ways of the world, and this means that North Korea is having a tougher time than it did under Kim Jong Il. During the Kim Jong Il era, if people weren’t able to collect rice (quotas) for the military, then nothing happened. But this year, the government is employing harsher measures to collect rice for the military, so people say Kim Jong Un doesn’t know the tough times that farmers are going through.

C: People are afraid because they think they will starve to death if things continue like this any longer. The donju and officials who earn a lot of money may not think this way of course, but the reality is that most people face very difficult situations. The Ministry of State Security (MSS) is also running really wild nowadays. Nobody can say what they think because the MSS has eyes and ears everywhere.