As enigmatic as he has proven to be, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has shown steadfast resolve on one particular issue: defection. Fewer and fewer people have been able to escape the world’s most secretive country for South Korea over the last eight years, despite over 30,000 North Koreans having fled to the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953. And while all three leaders of North Korea thus far – Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and now Kim Jong Un – have been power-driven, the current Kim has displayed a uniquely insatiable thirst to tighten his grip over the country, one that separates him from his father and grandfather. Kim’s actions and behavior closely mirror his obsession with how he and the regime are perceived, both domestically and internationally.
Since the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), defecting has been treated as a serious capital offense, with each ruler having generally resorted to extraordinary measures to ensure the population is locked up. Yet Kim Jong Un seems to have taken a particularly iron-fisted approach toward the issue. Jingoistic state propaganda is constantly pumped to every corner of the country in an effort to persuade North Koreans to continually have faith in their nation’s ideologies. A careful examination behind the scenes, however, reveals a much more nuanced situation; the overall respect that North Koreans hold toward party leadership has diminished with each successive Kim, which may explain why Kim Jong Un has exerted more effort into cracking down on defections.
Defection numbers out of North Korea to South Korea under Kim Jong Un’s regime are significantly down compared to numbers under his father’s, a trend likely brought about by shifts in the country’s economy. While the North Korean economy is not in great shape today, it has fared marginally better than when Kim Jong Il was in power, a time that saw a devastating famine that ravaged the country’s food supplies and caused hundreds of thousands of civilians to die of starvation and malnourishment. The calamity motivated a record number of North Koreans to flee in the 1990s and 2000s.
That the Kim Jong Un era has seen a steady annual decrease in defectors is a testament to several factors. First, there have been significant shifts in security personnel composition on North Korea’s major border points with China and South Korea. More fencing and CCTV cameras have been installed throughout the Sino-Korean border, and additional land mines planted along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas. Moreover, Kim has reportedly altered the makeup of border patrol officers by transferring authority from the military – widely regarded as corrupt and easy to bribe – to the Ministry of State Security (MSS), North Korea’s version of the Soviet Union’s notorious KGB, which essentially runs the country’s secret police force. These measures have made defection a more arduous and treacherous process than ever.
Second, North Korea has experienced relatively stable economic growth in recent years, especially when compared to the shambles it found itself in during the Kim Jong Il era. According to the Bank of Korea, North Korea’s gross national income (GNI), mining industry, and trade volume have all increased in some capacity since 2012. Expansions of the private economy and shifts in agricultural practices have allowed the country to inch toward recovery from the shock of the 1990s. Real estate prices have skyrocketed not only in Pyongyang but also in smaller towns and cities, as standards of living appear to be on the rise.
The tourism industry has been a large beneficiary of the regime’s efforts to boost the domestic economy. Notwithstanding the enforcement of international sanctions, North Korea has seen a gradual rise in tourists per annum, thanks in part to a rise in Chinese visitors. Several Chinese agencies in Dandong — a Chinese city right on the Sino-Korean border — offer a number of tourist packages, and Chinese citizens are even permitted to visit the North Korean city of Sinuiju with a travel pass and sans visa. Foreign investment in North Korea has also increased in recent years, due to the increase in visitors from China.
Furthermore, it is no secret that Kim Jong Un has been focused on initiating a massive tourism project in the country’s eastern coastal city of Wonsan. The Wonsan Special Tourist Zone, as it is officially called, is slated to become a billion-dollar tourist hotspot by way of constructing a $7.3 million department store, a $197 million city center development project, and a $123 million golf course. A new airport and ski resort have already opened to the public, and these ventures have collectively appeared to catch the eye of the international community. In fact, during the first North Korea-United States Summit in Singapore in June 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump said that North Korea had potential for condos and hotels on its “great” beaches, a possible reference to Wonsan.
Generally speaking, economic hope has also increased among the public; that is, North Koreans seem to have confidence that their country is improving economically and technologically. This has been largely aided by the rapid growth of black markets, or jangmadangs, which have emerged as marketplaces for the estimated 24 million North Korean consumers. An abundance of goods – ranging from food to various devices and gadgets – are available for the people, and the markets have been positive forces for the economic lives of North Koreans. Indeed, the jangmadangs have become so entrenched and established that they have ironically become the true stabilizing influence in society for the majority of North Koreans, perhaps even more so than Kim’s economic measures which tend to mostly benefit the elite.
Additionally, amidst the exchanges of merchandise, food, and other goods, these black markets serve a more concealed purpose; they are also hubs for various services and information collection, where people can gain knowledge they would not have had access to previously. In a communist society where daily activities and public congregation are strictly monitored and controlled by the government, these markets are in many ways safe havens for under-the-radar exchanges of news and rumors. North Koreans now have increased access to the outside world, through exposure to international cultures and products.With mobile phones and other mainstream gadgets, North Koreans are realizing how far behind their country lags in comparison to other nations. At the same time, access to such devices is instilling a sense of hope in them: that their country, but not necessarily its political leadership, is improving economically and technologically.
Ultimately, Kim Jong Un’s vision of economic development reflects his fixation on how to be perceived as a true global leader. It is quite clear that he is pursuing development because he wants to be able to take full credit for improving standards of living in North Korea, not because he actually cares about the well-being of his constituents. Much to his chagrin, these plans have been reportedly unsuccessful as it pertains to improving his public image among North Koreans.
Despite the economic gains that have been made under his regime, Kim Jong Un is still the least favored of all three Kims. This suggests that his vision is backfiring and that he is failing as a leader — and also helps explain the need for stepped-up measures to prevent North Koreans from escaping abroad. In a country with vast economic and social disparities, where the minority elites have long benefited from the regime and majority proletariat have largely been ignored, potential defectors and their families — who mostly belong to the lower social strata — continue to endure great hardships on a daily basis. Simply put, Pyongyang has improved, and still does so, at the expense of the countryside.
Still, so long as Kim Jong Un is in charge, defection numbers will likely continue to decrease. But that basic statistic may hide a more troubling trend for his leadership.
Abhinav Seetharaman is the current Princeton-in-Asia Fellow at the Milken Institute in Singapore. He is a graduate of Columbia University, from where he obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.