Chosun Ilbo Surveys 100 North Koreans

By | July 28, 2014 | No Comments

A collage made up of the many different graphics published by Chosun Ilbo between July 7 and 9 to illustrate the findings from their investigation in Northeast China. | Image: Destination Pyongyang

A collage made up of the many different graphics published by Chosun Ilbo between July 7 and 9 to illustrate the findings from their investigation in Northeast China. | Image: Destination Pyongyang

A recent survey of 100 civilians conducted in China by the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo offers interesting new evidence of trends in North Korean public opinion [1].

Published in the form of thematic articles over three days (July 7, 8, and 9), the survey results were obtained in cooperation with the Center for Cultural Unification Studies between January and May 2014 in Dandong and Yanji (the only locations cited). All 100 participating informants were in China on official visas issued after Kim Jong-un came to power: four received their permits in 2012, 53 in 2013, and a further 43 in 2014. Most were in China in order to visit family or close acquaintances, and most also planned to work for between six months and one year before returning to North Korea.

The headline results are as follows. First, the North Koreans surveyed (hereafter “North Koreans,” though the survey is unlikely to be fully representative of nationwide opinion. Please see footnote [1](3)) strongly agree with the need for unification. The overwhelming majority, 95%, sees unification as essential, and 97% say they would anticipate accruing benefit from it.

On the personal level, respondents say they harbor positive emotional attachment to South Koreans (the people, not the Republic of Korea itself); only 4% state that they do not feel close, or are to some extent hostile, to their southern brethren. Though only slightly fewer than half of people admit to having watched or listened to South Korean media inside North Korea, 79.6% of those who admitted to having done so say it gave them a positive impression of South Korea (the place, not the state), and 20.4% a slightly improved impression. Finally, 69% of all respondents say they support capitalism over [North Korean] socialism, and a further 11% said they support both equally. Just 19% come down fully on the side of socialism.

However, drilling down into the data uncovers an alternative viewpoint, with potentially tricky implications. First, good feeling at the personal level does not always translate into the sense that South Korea (the state, not the people or the place) is or can be a partner for North Korea. 41% of respondents speak of South Korea in cooperative terms, but 56% brand it as simply a future source of economic aid and assistance.

Indeed, the main reason why most respondents say they regard unification as necessary is to bring about the economic development of North Korea. Where 49% say this, a mere 25% state the need to unify for the emotional goal of bringing about societal unity. Further indicating the divergence of a 70-year history of antagonism, 76% of respondents say that the country that they feel closest to is actually China, whereas only 19% say South Korea.

Added to the conception of South Korea as a money box and not a friend comes the revelation that no fewer than 65% of respondents indicate that they are either “exceedingly proud” or “moderately proud” of the Juche idea. Only 35% express some level of ambivalence toward the Kimist version of what Hwang Jang-yop called his “human-centered philosophy.”

This last result affirms the point that North Koreans, it appears, do not want their state to disappear; their interest is predominantly in seeing it develop. Respect for the Juche idea, synonymous as it is with (false impressions of autonomous) development in the era of Kim Il-sung, arguably implies that collective memory of what North Korea once was is sufficient to maintain its popular legitimacy today.

Jilin City from the banks of the Songhua River. The city is home to a significant number of legally resident North Koreans, and plays host to even more every April, when hundreds arrive by bus to attend events commemorating the birth  of Kim Il-sung. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

Jilin City from the banks of the Songhua River. The city is home to a significant number of legally resident North Koreans, and plays host to even more every April, when hundreds arrive by bus to attend events commemorating the birth of Kim Il-sung. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

Elsewhere, the data also bears indirect witness to the logic of the policy decisions of the North Korean government; a government that, while not answerable to the people in a direct or democratic sense, does feel pressure to respond to public sentiment to a modest extent.

As the results strongly indicate, public sentiment is in favor of, and sees the need for, economic development. This may help to explain policies such as the “6.28 Directive” of mid-2012, but more importantly also the fact that the new Kim regime, keen to achieve governing stability, has been careful not to antagonize market actors or impede the basic function of the market economy thus far.

Understandably given the hardships of the Songun era of military dominance, respondents in the survey say that the main reason why the North Korean economy is in difficulties is excessive military spending (28%). A further 22% puts it down to bureaucratization, and 17% attributes it to “political problems, including those concerning the leader.” Unfortunately, the available data does not explore popular perceptions of why so much money flows into defense spending, which could be instructive. Nevertheless, the simple existence of the perception that military spending is excessive (과다한) may assist us in explaining the reorientation of the country’s presentational narrative of the military away from Songun defense and toward simultaneous defense and construction (the Byungjin line); in other words, the production of societal benefit derived from the military beyond the simple rhetoric of national defense.

On balance, a fascinating crop of articles and results, albeit one to be taken with a pinch of salt.


[1] Potential problems with the data that must be factored in are: (1) the published background to the survey is insufficient to conclude that it was rigorous, and while this is understandable since the Chosun Ilbo is a (conservative) newspaper and not an academic journal, caution is merited unless further methodological proof can be obtained; (2) the stated sample size, 100, is small; and (3) by leaning heavily on individuals in China on legal visas to visit family, the survey skews the sample toward females, since they can obtain family visit visas more easily than men, and toward people with relatively good social capital based in the border region, where many of those with relatives in China reside.

Source:100 North Korean Citizens Residing In China Interviewed About Economic and Social Realities” [중국 내 北 주민  100명에게 경제사정·사회 현실 에대해 인터뷰했더니…], Chosun Ilbo, July 8, 2014. Translation by Christopher Green.

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