Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights Into North Korea

January 20, 2011

WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — A path-breaking new study of North Korea from the Peterson Institute for International Economics, based on large-scale and unprecedented refugee surveys in China and South Korea, finds that a great many transformations are under way in one of the most isolated, poorly understood and dictatorial countries on earth. In their new book, Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea, authors Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland conclude that North Koreans hold their government in low regard and are far more skeptical of official explanations of their misery than is generally supposed. An overwhelming majority of refugees surveyed 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 ways of getting ahead throughout the country. State and party positions have become platforms for extortion as officials exploit a vast prison system for the purpose of economic predation.

Disaffection is widespread and documented by the book, but dissidents are fearful of sharing their views with each other. As a result of multiple state failures, most prominently a 1990s famine that killed as many as one million North Koreans (about 5 percent of the country’s population), much of the populace has found ways to exist autonomously from the government and to engage in transfers of money, goods, and perhaps most important, information. For that reason 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 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.

Most of the refugees would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in a clinical setting. 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 aid and the promise of financial and technical help 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.

SOURCE Peterson Institute for International Economics

Source: newswire

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