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North Korean Refugees Highly Skeptical of Government, Support Unification with South

January 19, 2011

By Katharine Keenan

Photo of DrEricson

A path-breaking new book about North Korea by Stephan Haggard, a UC San Diego professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, and Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, concludes that North Koreans hold their government in low regard and are far more skeptical of official explanations of their misery than is generally supposed.

In their new book, Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea, Haggard and Noland describe a variety of transformations under way in one of the most isolated, poorly understood and dictatorial countries on earth. For example, an overwhelming majority of North Korean refugees in China and South Korea who participated in the large-scale and unprecedented surveys support unification with the South, and report that their peers remaining in North Korea hold similar views.

The authors also find that North Korea faces tensions that result from rising inequality, corruption, and its citizens’ desperate quest for higher social status and income. Despite North Korea’s identity as an authoritarian state with economic activity supposedly controlled by the government, private business and corrupt and illegal activities are emerging as the dominant means of getting ahead throughout the country.

The book describes how state and party positions have become platforms for extortion as North Korean officials exploit a vast prison system for the purpose of economic predation. Disaffection documented by the authors is widespread, but dissidents are fearful of sharing their views even with each other.

As a result of multiple national catastrophes, most prominently a 1990s famine that killed as many as 1 million North Koreans (about 5 percent of the country’s population), much of the populace has found ways to exist autonomously from the government: citizens engage in transfers of money, goods, and perhaps most important, information. In an attempt to try to rein in such activities, North Korean authorities have dramatically expanded the definition of “economic crimes.”

Participants in market activities not only harbor more negative attitudes toward the regime than the general population, but they also are more willing to communicate their dissenting views to others. They are also 50 percent more likely to be arrested. Once incarcerated, they report extraordinary incidences of public executions, torture, food deprivation, withholding of medical care, and other forms of abuse in the country, which is characterized by a complete absence of standard political freedoms or civil liberties. Indeed, any sign of “political deviance,” such as inadvertently sitting on a newspaper containing the photograph of the North Korean leader, can be subject to punishment, Haggard and Noland wrote.

Most of the refugees interviewed for the book would be clinically diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Statistical analysis indicates that their psychological problems stem from their harsh experiences, including deaths of family members from starvation, imprisonment, and perceptions of unfairness in the distribution of food aid. Most respondents did not believe that they were beneficiaries of the long-standing international aid program and instead believe that aid was diverted, primarily to the military.

Haggard and Noland recommend increasing the efficiency of humanitarian aid to North Korea and using that aid and the promise of financial and technical help as leverage to try to persuade the country to undertake domestic political and economic reforms. Aid must include incentives to expand the private sector, the authors say, if it is to avoid politicizing aid projects and reinforcing the repressive state.

About the Authors

Stephan Haggard, visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute, is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Distinguished Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies and director of the Korea-Pacific Program at UC San Diego’s Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS). Haggard is the author of The Political Economy of the Asian Financial Crisis (2000) and Pathways from the Periphery: The Politics of Growth in the Newly Industrializing Countries (1990) and coauthor of The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions (1995) and Development, Democracy, and Welfare States (2008) with Robert Kaufman and of Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (2007) with Marcus Noland. He is a member of the Institute’s Advisory Committee.

Marcus Noland, senior fellow, became deputy director of the Peterson Institute in September 2009. He has been associated with the Institute since 1985. He is concurrently a senior fellow at the East-West Center. He was a senior economist for international economics on the Council of Economic Advisers (1993–94); visiting professor at Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Southern California, Tokyo University, Saitama University (now the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies), and the University of Ghana; and a visiting scholar at the Korea Development Institute. He is author, coauthor, or editor of The Arab Economies in a Changing World (2007), which was selected as Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2007, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (2007), Korea after Kim Jong-il (2004), Industrial Policy in an Era of Globalization: Lessons from Asia (2003), No More Bashing: Building a New Japan–United States Economic Relationship (2001), Avoiding the Apocalypse: The Future of the Two Koreas (2000), which won the 2000–01 Ohira Memorial Award, and Economic Integration of the Korean Peninsula (1998).

About the Korea-Pacific Program, IR/PS, UC San Diego

The Korea-Pacific Program (K-PP) was founded in 1989 by Professor Emeritus Lawrence Krause in recognition of the growing importance of Korea to the United States and to the Asia-Pacific region more generally. The program promotes greater understanding of contemporary Korea, both North and South, including international relations, politics, public policy and the business environment. Recent projects of the K-PP include a consortium on the political economy of South Korea in the postwar period supported by the Academy of Korean Studies, research on corruption in South Korea, and ongoing work on the security environment and political economy of North Korea. The K-PP has also sponsors cultural activities, including a film festival showing films from both North and South Korea.

About the Peterson Institute for International Economics

The Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics is a private, non-profit, non-partisan research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy. Since 1981 the Institute has provided timely and objective analysis of, and concrete solutions to, a wide range of international economic problems. It is one of the very few economics think tanks widely regarded as “non-partisan” by the press and “neutral” by the US Congress. Its research staff is cited by the quality media more than that of any other such institution, and it was selected as Top Think Tank in the World for 2008 in the first comprehensive survey of over 5,000 such institutions. Support is provided by a wide range of charitable foundations, private corporations and individual donors, and from earnings on the Institute’s publications and capital fund. It moved into its award-winning new building in 2001, and celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2006 and adopted its new name at that time, having previously been the Institute for International Economics.


Media Contact: Rex Graham, 858-534-2248 or ragraham@ucsd.edu

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