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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Voting with Their Feet

by | July 22nd, 2014 | 06:30 am

“Our country is well-organized. There are no riots, no strikes, no differences in opinion.” Kim Mun-sung, then Deputy Chair of the Committee for External Economic Cooperation.

One of the odder inquiries I sometimes receive from journalists concerns public opinion in North Korea. As far as I know there are no published public opinion surveys (though it is conceivable that the state conducts opinion assessments for its own purposes), and foreign intelligence agencies do their own versions of polling, but these are not publicly accessible.

So a common response to the problem of trying to understand what the North Korean people may be thinking is to fall back on surveys of refugees and travelers. In Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea we did this extensively, cognizant of the fundamental sample selection issue (people who flee the country may not be representative of those who remain), using multivariate statistical models to gin up counterfactual projections adjusting for all observable differences in our sample and the underlying population. The basic result we got is that on “factual” issues (i.e. “how much of your food was obtained via the market”) there appeared to be little difference between our refugee sample and the general population. However on “opinion” issues (i.e. “the performance of the regime is improving”) there was more evidence that people with characteristics that tended to lend themselves to negative views of the regime were disproportionately represented, though this bias tended to be relatively minor.

We asked the respondents about their hopes for the future of the peninsula. Unification was supported overwhelmingly to the alternatives of the status quo, or some kind of third way such as the maintenance of a divided peninsula with a non-Kim Il-sungist regime in charge of the North (below). The overwhelming majority of the respondents went so far as to say that their own views mirrored those of their peers remaining in North Korea, though obviously there is no way of judging the accuracy of this projection.

NK refugee views on unification

Similar results were obtained in a recent poll of 100 refugees conducted in China by the Chosun Ilbo and the Center for Cultural Unification Studies. The respondents had left North Korea 2012-14, that is to say after the polling done for our book. Yet the results track the ones obtained earlier closely:  95 of the respondents indicated that unification was “very necessary,” with a majority citing economic development or improvements in lifestyle as the primary reason. The refugees indicated that “reunification will ensure better lives for their children and freedom to spend their money as they wish.”