By Andrei Lankov
The present author has never made secret his views regarding the future of the North Korean regime: I believe that in the long run, it is doomed. There are many things which are likely to eventually bring the Kim family down, and one of them is the generational shift.
Generations change and this type of turnover has always been a significant factor in historical events. Nowadays in North Korea, one can see the rise of a new generation, whose ideas and values are very different from those of their father’s and, for that matter, their grandfather’s.
These are people who entered their teenage years after the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, when North Korean began to be dramatically transformed. This can be described in a nutshell as ``marketization from below.” Now in their late 20s and early 30s this group has never really experienced the world which once determined the lives of their parents.
Nearly all North Koreans above the age of 35, became adults in a monolithic state-controlled society, which had been developed under the leadership of Kim Il-sung from the late 1950s. In this society, the state was ubiquitous. It provided virtually the entire population with highly subsidized (almost free) food rations. In return it was expected that every adult would work for the state. Money was not that important in the old North Korean world. Success and prosperity was determined not by one’s ability to generate a large income but by one’s ability to ingratiate oneself with the state.
The outside world remained largely unknown and was generally presumed to be inferior in all important regards to Kim Il -sung’s realm.
North Koreans seemingly bought official state propaganda of their era wholesale, not least because there no other sources to compare it to.
This all changed in the 1990s. The once ubiquitous rationing system collapsed. Now rations are issued only to officials. To compensate and survive, people began to trade or look for private employment and they soon learnt that money talks.
Younger North Koreans grew up in a society centered on emerging market places. For their parents, earthly success was embodied in the form of a well fed party cadre, who would have been driven around in an old Soviet jeep or, in some exceptional cases, in an old Mercedes. For the younger generation though, success is exemplified by market traders who have flat screen TVs and air conditioners inside their homes and who wine and dine their mistresses in posh restaurants.
The majority of older North Koreans still see the state as the natural giver of things. But for the younger generation the state and its bureaucrats are more likely to be viewed as a swarm of parasites.
It is not incidental that membership to the Korean Workers Party is much less coveted nowadays. In the past membership was a necessary prerequisite to advance socially. Currently, the marketplace and involvement in the private economy offers North Koreans a more attractive alternative. It would be an exaggeration to say that younger North Koreans are less eager to become officials but for many of them, operating a shop in the market appears to be an easier and more rewarding option.
Young North Koreans are less afraid of the state as well. Contrary to what is often claimed in the media, the North Korean state has become significantly less repressive in recent years. The decline of terror has made people less fearful and on top of that, younger North Koreans know that money can be used to buy oneself out of even political trouble. Of course they must be careful but much less so than their parents had to be during the purges of the 1960s and 1970s (the shadow of these purges still linger for this older generation and they remain frightened as a result).
The younger generation also has a fuller, more complete understanding of the world outside North Korea. No one believes anymore that the nation is rich. A majority realize at least that South Korea is ahead of the North and China’s economic success is widely known and much admired.
So we have a new generation. These people are much less respectful of the state, less afraid to speak their minds, and make a living outside the state-controlled economy. They are somewhat less afraid of police spooks and spend their spare time watching South Korean movies or listening to foreign music. They might be more capable of organizing independently of the state, even though they are markedly more individualistic. In short, they constitute a potential force for revolution.
However, one should not be excessively optimistic. It will take years, may be even decades, before this group becomes a majority of the population. And of course, the existence of a potentially discontented group is not always sufficient to spark insurgency.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at email@example.com.