Public anger in NK deepens as tension rises

By Song Sang-ho | Source: ANN
Public anger in North Korea appears to be deepening as the iron-fisted regime’s renewed nuclear brinkmanship has further isolated the country and aggravated its chronic food shortages, defectors and experts said.

Given the regime’s tendency to silence any dissent, the agony of the people is unlikely to force the North to shift its course, which appears intended to up the ante in future negotiations with the US and South Korea, some argued.

But others said growing discontent among average people in the impoverished state could come to a head and undermine the legitimacy of the fledgling leadership in Pyongyang.

“People’s grievances against the regime are quite serious. Some even hope a war will break out to overthrow the regime, as they have no power at all to do that by themselves,” Lee Hae-young, a North Korean defector informed of the current situation, told The Korea Herald.

“The North makes war threats against the South and the US, but it has no ability to mobilise any troops even for any military maneuvers with little food and oil. Many in provincial areas are dragged out to support the farming and some are malnourished and taken out by their parents.”

Food shortages are expected to further worsen in the coming months, called the “season of spring poverty,” when the fall harvests run short while the year’s harvests have yet to come.

In May, more people including soldiers will have to focus on planting rice. But should soldiers be mobilised for military events amid the peninsular tension, the food crisis would further escalate, observers said.

As China ― its only major ally and supplier of food, oil and other materials ― loses patience with its provocative behavior, the North faces tougher economic challenges. China provides most of the country’s fuel and more than 80 per cent of its imports such as electronics and other consumer goods.

In the wake of Pyongyang’s sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March 2010, Seoul cut official economic support to the North under the so-called May 24 measures.

The operation of the Gaeseong industrial complex, a major source of hard foreign currency for the North, was also put on hold on April 9 amid the standoff with Seoul.

“The escalated tensions have apparently impacted the North’s trade with China. North Koreans were mobilised for some congregations rather than engaging in productive activities. The nation has focused on political, military aspects rather than the economy,” said Cho Bong-hyun, a senior researcher at the Industrial Bank of Korea.

“What matters for average people is food, and the food shortages worsened by the tension obviously increase their anger. They can’t publicly talk about it, but this could be building over time and deepen their displeasure against the leadership.”

To a certain extent, Pyongyang has used the rising tension to calm public anger and strengthen national unity, experts pointed out. Despite their discontent, North Koreans dare not raise complaints as there are “ears in every wall.”

“Their anger is just stifled and festering inside, and will never come to a head given the closed nature of the North Korean society,” said Park Hyeong-jung, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

Lee Hae-young cast North Korea as a “feudal society of enslavement”.

“In the North, more than three people cannot get together for talks in a group as they could speak ill of the country. There are government minders everywhere and depending on how you express your discontent when you are caught, your entire family for generations could be punished,” he said.

“A military coup is inconceivable. In the military, at every unit, you have many different minders from the ruling Workers’ Party that form the basis of a very tight monitoring system. You can’t even commit suicide as you would be branded as having complaints with the regime or party and your entire family would be punished.”

North Korea has recently indicated it would focus more on shoring up its debilitated economy, as it has appointed Park Bong-ju, once touted as a symbol of economic reform, as prime minister.

Pyongyang has also adopted its policy line of concurrently pursuing economic development and nuclear armament. But the two-pronged policy is unlikely to be successful as the two key goals conflict with each other.

Analysts said the North could seek a way out of the stalemate after the end of the South Korea-US joint Foal Eagle exercise that ends on April 30. Others said the communist state might wait to see what offers could be made during the summit between President Park Geun-hye and US President Barack Obama next month.

“After the summit, there could be a period of dialogue and tension reduction. And all sides will be trying to find out each other’s intentions,” said Park of the KINU.

“As the differences of opinion between Seoul and Pyongyang, and Washington and Pyongyang, it will not be easy for all sides to narrow them soon.”