N. Korean Refugees View Regime With Skepticism

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A new survey of North Korean refugees living in South Korea and China suggests an increasing number of North Koreans view Kim Jong Il's regime with skepticism. Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute, one of the authors of the study, offers his insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

I'm Michele Norris, and this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SIEGEL: North Korea is notoriously opaque: a dynastic, communist dictatorship where dissent is not tolerated, and the media are state-controlled. So assessing public opinion among North Koreans sounds like, at best, a crude business.

A new study attempts to do that by sampling opinion among North Korean refugees, and the authors conclude that opposition to the North Korean regime, cynicism about it and listening to foreign news sources about it are all on the rise.

Marcus Noland is one of the authors. He's deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MARCUS NOLAND (Deputy Director, Peterson Institute for International Economics): My pleasure.

SIEGEL: And first, the obvious question of method here is: Do a few hundred North Koreans who have left and now live in South Korea, are they representative of the millions of North Koreans who still live there?

Mr. NOLAND: What we can do is we can take the pattern of responses and analyze it statistically. We can try to identify demographic characteristics like gender, or life experiences like receiving food aid, that may affect people's responses. And then having done that statistical analysis, we can make a counterfactual projection onto the remaining local population.

It appears that the refugees' views are not that different from what we project onto the resident population, but having voted with their feet, this could be a community that simply has characteristics or views that we cannot observe that would make them distinct. That is certainly the case.

SIEGEL: So if you can construct a model of what public opinion is in North Korea, what they think of the regime, how are those views changing now over time?

Mr. NOLAND: The projections are that public opinion about the regime is pretty low and falling.

SIEGEL: To the extent of taking part in any kind of dissident political behavior or expressing such views publicly? How would you measure that?

Mr. NOLAND: What we can observe is that people increasingly do not accept the regime's narrative, the explanation that all of their ills are due to hostile foreign forces. People increasingly regard the regime as the reason for their situation.

Moreover, the disastrous currency reform that the country undertook on 30th November of last year is a fiasco that is so obviously incompatible with this explanation that everything that is wrong is due to hostile foreigners since it's so obviously self-inflicted. And I think that simply will add an exclamation point to this trend of increasing disbelief about the regime's explanations.

SIEGEL: You asked people about the use of foreign media, and it does appear that the so-called hermit kingdom is not so hermetically sealed as it once was.

Mr. NOLAND: I wouldn't want to exaggerate sources of information that they have at their disposal, but the numbers that report that they had access but had declined to listen has basically disappeared completely.

So people who have access are now listening, and that's an increasing share of the population.

SIEGEL: There's a question you ask that I find interesting. It's whether people in North Korea make jokes about Kim Jong Il, the leader, or his regime, for that matter.

Mr. NOLAND: Well, we ask a series of questions that could be thought of as political anthropology. First, you know, among your peers, when you were in North Korea, did you joke about conditions? Did you complain about conditions? Did you joke about Kim Jong Il? Did you complain about Kim Jong Il?

And what emerges from this is that even amongst this population, which one would expect them to be about as dissenting a group as one could identify, is the degree of atomization. Although the numbers of affirmative responses to those questions are rising, they still remain relatively low, and Kim Jong Il himself remains absolutely sacrosanct. Nobody jokes about Kim Jong Il.

SIEGEL: Marcus Noland, co-author of the study, "Political Attitudes Under Repression: Evidence from North Korean Refugees." The study was conducted for the East-West Center. Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. NOLAND: My pleasure.

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