07.03.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The latest report by South Korea’s Unification Ministry – a serious analysis or fake news?

Kim Jong-un

It will soon be 10 years since the publication of South Korea’s review of the state of human rights in the DPRK, which, thanks to its uncritical treatment of sources, turned out to be “much ado about not very much”.

10 years later, on February 6, 2024, South Korea’s Ministry for Unification presented what it considered to be a serious report, Perceptions of the Current Socioeconomic Situation in the DPRK, based on the results of an analysis of surveys of 6,531 defectors who left the DPRK between 2013 and 2022 (i.e. since Kim Jong-un came to power). Apparently, these documents were previously classified, with Category 3 secrecy level.

The results of this report were widely circulated in the South Korean and foreign press, where they were presented as evidence of the growing impoverishment of the people and rising discontent with the “Paektu Kim regime”. In short, as usual, the situation in the DPRK is terrible, and the country is on the verge of collapse? Right?

On the one hand, compared to the report it issued a decade ago, the Ministry has made a significant step forward. The new report is not based on interviews with odious personalities like Shin Dong-hyuk or secret witnesses whose identities cannot be confirmed. However, the data in this document should still be treated critically because of the inadequacy of the sample.

Firstly, the sample has a clear regional and gender bias. The report states that 81.8% of the survey participants were women, and 82.1% of them were from border areas, with Pyongyang residents accounting for only 2.7%;

27.9% of the respondents are in their 20s, 26.9% in their 30s, another 26.9% in their 40s and 17.7% over 50.

The report states that it does not cover the situation in North Korea after Pyongyang closed the border due to COVID-19, as it was compiled based on information collected from defectors from the North who left the country before 2020. However, that period saw the beginning of strong changes in the leadership of the economy, with an increase in centralization and its subordination to the cabinet.

Secondly, the respondents are not just people who left the country for one reason or another, but those who actually decided to move to the South. This is already a rather specific sample group, because, as a rule, moving to the South indicates either antipathy to the North or circumstances that prevent the person from staying there (for example, the threat of criminal prosecution for economic crimes).

Finally, of the many who have fled to the South, only a fraction have agreed to take part in such detailed interviews. We know from other media that this kind of cooperation is often undertaken under pressure from the National Intelligence Service, or when a member of the North Korean nomenklatura wants to boost his position and is willing to engage in “storytelling” of varying levels of credibility in order to do so. Moreover, it is a criminal offence in the Republic of Korea to praise the North Korean regime, and the current Conservative government does not tend to ignore behavior of this kind.

The present author will add his comments after each figure.

  • 9% of the defectors who fled North Korea between 2016 and 2020 said they had a negative opinion of the Kim family’s status as hereditary rulers. Some 42.6% of those who fled the country from 2011 to 2015 held this view, while back in 2000 the proportion who held this view was 22.7%. As for those in favor of leadership by the “Paektu bloodline”, between 2011 and 2015 only 29.4% expressed this view, while in 2000 the proportion was 57.3%.
  • The number of respondents who think it is wrong to hand over power in the country to Kim Jong-un is increasing, from 47.9% in 2011-2015 to and 56.3% in 2016-2020.
  • 8% of the defectors from the North questioned said they believe Kim Jong-un’s rise to power is inappropriate. Among those who fled North Korea between 2016 and 2020, about 56.3% gave a negative assessment of Kim as a leader. In this regard, the report concludes that “negative public sentiment toward a leadership system based on the “Paektu bloodline” is growing, and this perception seems to have gained momentum since Kim Jong-un came to power.”

This is not surprising, as back in 2000 most of those fleeing to South Korea were seeking an escape from economic collapse and starvation, not from the regime itself. Those who have fled under Kim Jong-un are more likely to be “political” defectors. In addition, in 2000, under Kim Dae-jung, “praising the regime” was treated much more leniently than under today’s Conservative government.

  • 2% of the defectors in 2016-2020 said they did not receive food rations, while 50.3% received neither wages nor food rations at their main job (as opposed to 33.5% before 2000);

Here the authors of the report are ignoring the fact that in North Korea ration cards have long ceased to be the main source of food for the population, and are now seen more as a sign that the state is “looking after the people”.

  • those who left the DPRK after 2012 received 68.1% of their income from “unofficial” sources;

This means that the defectors are not ordinary workers or employees but “businessmen” at various levels or young people from the party official class. To what extent their views correspond to the majority of the country’s population is a VERY debatable question, and this should be taken into account when analyzing the following data.

  • Some 91% are convinced that life in North Korea would not be possible without markets;
  • 7% of the respondents believe they bought food (rice and maize) from markets, while for those who defected in 2016-2020 this proportion was 71.2%;
  • 6% of defectors said that while living in the DPRK it was only possible to earn money only through business and entrepreneurial activities. 56% even said they preferred money to political power.

Among the expert community, there is no doubt that markets have played an important role in the DPRK since the “Arduous March”. But if under Kim Jong-il the policy in this area was changing, under Kim Jong-un markets have no longer been targeted by the authorities. Therefore, the statement that “the impact of markets extends to healthcare, education, transportation and information infrastructure” is largely correct.

27.1% of those who fled between 2016 and 2020 had used private car transportation services (compared with 17.9% in 2011-2015).

  • 7% of those who escaped between 2016 and 2020 had experience in hiring workers (compared with 12.8% in 2011-2015);
  • 8% of respondents (compared with 10.7% as of 2000) stated that they had experience in selling real estate, whether houses or land; while among those who fled between 2016 and 2020, 46.2% had bought or sold houses;
  • despite the prohibition against lending money at interest, such “anti-socialist actions” are very common. 4% stated that starting a business or their own enterprise was their main reason for borrowing money (48.8% prior to 2012);
  • between 2016 and 2020. 47.9% of state-owned stores and 57.5% of state-owned restaurants were in reality in private hands;

These and other additional figures, which demonstrate the importance of the parallel economy, are generally consistent with the present author’s own sources.

  • The proportion of people who reported that they ate three meals a day increased from 32.5% in 2000 to 91.9% in 2016-2020;
  • the proportion of enterprises with a power supply for 6 hours and less per day increased from 30.6% to 38.6%.

In the present author’s view, these are the key figures. The sharp increase in the number of people eating three meals a day is a very important indicator that refutes rumors that “North Korea is suffering from chronic food shortages amid prolonged UN sanctions on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.” The construction boom in Pyongyang and around the country is, according to official in the Republic of Korea, “to sone extent an illusion”.

  • The number of people who did not use the state healthcare system increased from 19.4% to 39.3%, about 45% of respondents said they had to buy medicines from markets, and only 21.3% said they were prescribed and given medicines for free at hospitals.

It should be noted that in 2023, 41.6% of South Koreans between the ages of 19 and 34 were forced to forgo seeking medical care when they needed it.

According to the White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, published by the Korea Institute for National Unification, defectors said they had to hire doctors on their own or bribe health officials in order to get medical care. The White Paper also says that North Koreans tend to resort to narcotics for “treatment” because of the lack of medicines and medical expertise, and that this has led to fatal cases of drug addiction.

However, the sources of the White Paper, unlike those of the Ministry of Unification’s report, are not disclosed.

36.4% of respondents used mobile phone services, but without Internet access, and only 2.1% reported they had used the Internet on mobile devices.

  • 6% of the defectors did not use the Internet (compared with 90.4% in 2011-2015).

As the present author has written many times, in the DPRK the Internet as a means of information and communication is largely replaced by the national intranet, but the interesting here point is hidden in the figures. The report “Analysis of the Impact of the Spread of Cell Phones in North Korea on the Quality of Life of the Population”, prepared by specialists of the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), shows that, as of 2021, there were about six million subscribers in the country. Taking into account the country’s total population of about 25.7 million people, this means that almost one in four people – 23.1% – have a cell phone. According to a 2017 UNICEF study, among North Korea’s economically active population between the ages of 15 and 49, this figure was as high as 47.9% (men) and 55.7% (women).

Thus, the proportion of cell phone users among the respondents cited in the report is higher than the national average: 36.4% vs. 23.1%. For the present author, this is another sign that the sample is not entirely representative.

  • The majority of respondents indicated that the status of women in the DPRK has increased as a result of their active involvement in economic activities (they make up the majority of traders in the markets), with more than 40% stating that their status is higher than or the same as that of men. The proportion of women who postpone marriage or who get divorced has increased, and the birth rate in North Korea has decreased.

This is also important data for the author, although the Republic of Korea tries to obscure its significance with phrases that “gender equality in North Korean society remains virtually unchanged as the regime encourages women to raise children and wear traditional clothing in daily life.”

In 2016-2020, 83.3% of respondents watched foreign movies and TV series (compared with 8.4% before 2000). Of these respondents, 71.8% watched Chinese and 23.1% watched South Korean movies or series; 60.7% reported that their perceptions of reality in North Korea became more negative after watching foreign video content;

  • 5% of respondents said that state oversight and control measures had been made stricter in the period since 2012 (compared with 50.7% for the period before 2011);
  • 3% of respondents reported that in 2016-2020 they had been searched and followed (compared with 16.4% before 2000);

A certain tightening of the screws in the country is evident, because Kim Jong-un has taken up the task of eradicating “non-socialist phenomena”, especially corruption. Experts note that the pressure on ordinary citizens has somewhat decreased, while pressure on Party officials has increased, and thus the data on searches and surveillance once again reveals information about the type of people who took part in the survey.

In conclusion, here we have a more subtle version of propaganda, in which what is in many cases very interesting data is nevertheless presented in a biased manner. However, while a professional who understands the context is able to discount the distortion caused by the specific nature of the sample, separate the wheat from the chaff and use the materials of the report in a non-biased manner, the same cannot be said for general readers and the popular media.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences and Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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