Do North Koreans Really “Revere” Kim Jong Il?

This otherwise reasonable CNN article about recently deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il claims that he was “revered at home” by his people, despite a negative reputation abroad:

Regarded as one of the world’s most-repressive leaders, Kim Jong Il always cut a slightly bizarre figure. His diminutive stature and characteristically bouffant hair have been parodied by some in the West….

But for the citizens of his Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim was well regarded….

Analysts say it is easy for outsiders to demonize Kim Jong Il, a dictator who spent an estimated 25% or more of his country’s gross national product on the military while many in his country went hungry.

But in North Korea, closed off from outside influences, fearful of threats from its neighbors, and subjected to decades of political socialization on top of a long tradition of a strict hierarchical system, Kim Jong Il is viewed positively by most people, said Han Park of the Center for Study of Global Issues.

“The level of reverence for Kim Jong Il in North Korea is quite underestimated by the outside,” Park said. “He is regarded by many as not only a superior leader but a decent person, a man of high morality.

How do CNN and Han Park know that North Koreans “revere” the late “Dear Leader”? It’s true, as the article notes, that many North Koreans routinely say they revere him, and recently publicly lamented his death. But any North Korean who fails to express such support for the regime (or, worse, expresses even the slightest criticism) is likely to end up in a concentration camp or worse. So such expressions of support cannot be taken at face value.

There is actually plenty of evidence suggesting that most North Koreans do not in fact support their regime, or revere the Dear Leader who subjected them to starvation and mass murder. The fact that hundreds of thousands risk their lives trying to escape to China, Russia, or South Korea is a powerful data point, just as in the similar case of Cuba. It’s a safe bet that people who risk their lives to flee a regime probably don’t revere its leaders. No doubt many more would flee if not for the fact that the regime kills or imprisons any would-be refugees who are caught.

The fact that the government maintains a police state even more repressive than the USSR is an indication that the regime’s leaders themselves do not believe they have broad popular support regardless of what they may say in public. If they did, they wouldn’t feel as much of a need to resort to repression to keep themselves in power.

It’s difficult to say how much genuine popular support the North Korean government enjoys. But if I had to bet, I would guess that the majority of the population would be more than happy to rid themselves of the Kims and their cronies at the first opportunity. Indeed, I doubt that North Koreans are much different in this respect from the people of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Many Western observers took the latter’s statements of support for communism at face value too, and were therefore surprised when communism collapsed in a wave of popular unrest after the shackles of repression were loosened in 1989-91.

This is not to deny that there are North Koreans who genuinely revere the Kim dynasty. Every regime has at least some beneficiaries, and decades of indoctrination have surely had an impact. Some people really do love Big Brother. But a great many others are only pretending to do so for the sake of self-preservation.

Unfortunately, it is all too common for Western observers to take professions of loyalty to repressive regimes at face value. In previous posts, I discussed cases involving Cuba and Iran. The latter was a 2007 study that came just two years before a large-scale popular protest movement against the regime revealed that the regime was far less popular than surface appearances suggested.

UPDATE: In the original version of this post, I forgot to link the CNN article that inspired it. The problem has been fixed.

UPDATE #2: This more recent CNN video describes some of the North Korean government’s mechanisms of repression and social control. Perhaps the author of the first article should watch the video and consider its implications for his own piece.