(ATTN: ADDS details in paras 13, 15, 21-23, photo )
By Kim Soo-yeon and Lee Minji
SEOUL, Feb. 6 (Yonhap) — A growing number of North Koreans have negatively assessed Kim Jong-un as a political leader and harbored doubts about whether the Kim family’s hereditary power succession is legitimate, a report showed Tuesday.
Seoul’s unification ministry released the 280-page report on North Korea’s economic and social situation for the first time Tuesday. The report is based on in-depth interviews with 6,351 North Korean defectors conducted between 2013 and 2022.
It showed 43.8 percent of the North’s defectors said they thought Kim Jong-un taking power was inappropriate when they lived in North Korea. For those who fled North Korea between 2016 and 2020, some 56.3 percent gave a negative assessment of Kim as a leader.
“Negative public sentiments toward the ‘Paektu bloodline’-based leadership system have been increasing and this perception appears to be gaining traction since Kim Jong-un assumed power (in late 2011),” the report showed.
North Korean propaganda has idolized the ruling family as the “Paektu bloodline,” claiming that Kim’s late father, former leader Kim Jong-il, was born on Mount Paektu, the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula, despite the fact that he was born in the far eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk.
Nearly 55 percent of the North’s defectors who fled the North between 2016 and 2020 said they had a negative opinion of the Kim family’s power succession. Some 42.6 percent held such a view among those who escaped the country between 2011 and 2015.
Kim Jong-un has brought his teen daughter, Ju-ae, to public events since late 2022 in an apparent bid to demonstrate his commitment to the third hereditary power succession. The National Intelligence Service, Seoul’s spy agency, said it sees Ju-ae as the “most likely successor.”
Amid a sluggish economy, more North Koreans have been doing various activities in the “private” economy, including selling goods at markets, cultivating unauthorized lands, smuggling and engaging in housing construction projects.
Markets are playing a critical role in the livelihoods of North Koreans, as the food rationing system has collapsed. Around 91 percent of the North’s defectors said life was not sustainable without markets, and for those who fled the North after 2012, some 68.1 percent of their income came from “non-official” income sources.
“The influence of markets has been expanding to healthcare, education, transportation and information infrastructure from the necessities of life, such as food, clothing and shelter, as well as energy, water and sewage,” it said.
North Korea has been suffering from a chronic food shortage amid prolonged U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. The North Korean economy probably contracted 0.2 percent on-year in 2022, marking the third straight year of falls, according to data from the Bank of Korea.
Amid market-based economic activities, “non-socialist” acts banned under North Korean law have also risen, including hiring contracts between individuals and sales of houses and land, the report showed.
Among defectors who fled the North between 2016 and 2020, 46.2 percent said they have purchased or sold homes, compared with 10.7 percent among defectors who fled the country before 2000.
The status of women in North Korea, a male-dominant society, has changed as more North Korean women have engaged in economic activities in marketplaces. The proportion of women who delay marriage or get divorced has increased, and North Korea’s fertility rate has declined.
Despite the change in the economic status of women, the report said overall gender equality in the North Korean society remains little changed, with the regime encouraging women to raise children and wear traditional attire in their daily lives.
Touching on inflows of outside information, 36.4 percent of the defectors said they possessed mobile phones in North Korea, but access to the internet was almost impossible.
Despite North Korea’s stepped-up surveillance, North Koreans have been watching movies or dramas produced by South Korea and other countries via USBs and other devices.
Some 83.3 percent of the North’s defectors who fled the country between 2016 and 2020 said they watched videos originating from other countries, compared with 8.4 percent of those who escaped the North before 2000.
North Korea has tightened its grip on inflows of outside information as it views them as a source of major threats to the regime. In 2020, North Korea adopted a new law that bans people from distributing or watching videos originating from South Korea, the United States and other countries.
“Under the Kim Jong-un regime, North Korea has been strengthening its control of society and discipline,” the report said.
A ministry official said the report “clearly” shows that the livelihoods of the North Korean people have worsened since Kim came to power.
“There have been assessments that the livelihoods of the North Korean people have improved since Kim came to power, but this is somewhat an illusion,” the official told reporters, when speaking about the North’s push to build more homes and buildings.
“If people’s livelihoods appear to have improved, it is not the result of the regime’s policy efforts but because North Koreans went to markets to earn money and produced agricultural goods,” the official said.
Of the surveyed defectors, 81.8 percent were women and 82.1 percent hailed from four northern provinces bordering China. People in their 20s and 30s accounted for 54.8 percent of the North’s defectors.
The report did not include North Korea’s situation in the wake of Pyongyang’s border closure over COVID-19 as it was written based on information collected from the North’s defectors who fled their home country in the period up until 2020.