Why are North Koreans not trying to overthrow their government?

A question which is often asked to me is why are most North Koreans staying in their country despite the repressive system and whether they can live a happy life at all. Actually, there is no available data on how happy North Koreans are, but just because the system is highly repressive, it does in return not indicate that all people feel to live in hell. And there are obvious reasons for this.

At first, the country has a pervasive propaganda apparatus that emphasizes the regime’s ideology and the need for loyalty to the state. This need is undermined by the external threat, not only from the U.S. and Japan, but also China is often portrayed as a threat in lectures in local neighbourhood meetings (inminban) despite the fact that China is a strong ally. The government fears that the country could be colonized, either through China’s rising power or the Western-styled capitalism. And the government makes clear to its citizens that life outside of their system is even worse.

Now why do North Koreans believe their propaganda? At first, there is no outside information in many parts of the country which means that only state media is available. Additionally, ideological education starts from the very early childhood and is an essential part of the people’s characters throughout. Next, empirical evidence seems to prove the propaganda of the government to be right for those who live in the country: There are many returnees to North Korea who could not integrate into South Korea. North Koreans are told in China by individuals and different NGOs that South Korea is a country where everyone can achieve everything, that one can become rich if working hard, and that one has all kinds of freedoms. A special factor with South Korea is that it is an illiberal democracy known to restrict the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. So North Koreans in the South see that liberties are quite restricted there as well. Furthermore, many North Koreans in foreign countries are exploited in the low-paid sector. And finally, North Korea has a high social capital, as to survive properly, everyone has to support everyone as much as possible, while there is quite a social distance in more developed countries and a spirit of community is not that deeply rooted. These social factors, as well as the bad economic situation of many North Korean refugees makes them seem their life in North Korea to be more successful, despite the many shortages and the lack of political and civic freedoms.   

Furthermore, the ideology of the country is highly appealing for many citizens, since it focusses on the nation and its strength and therefore feeds the feeling of superiority which has a long history in Korea. Historically, Koreans believe that they are chosen by God and that their country is a special nation. In combination with a lack of outside information, the propaganda that the Kims are guiding the chosen people against exterior enemies which are waiting everywhere and a disinterest into politics of many citizens, many North Koreans are not feeling to live in a hell on earth.

Anyways, it is difficult to determine the extent to which North Koreans are loyal to the system. It is important to acknowledge that the situation in North Korea is complex and multifaceted.
Therefore, generalizations about the views of North Koreans should be made with caution to both sides. One should not say that many North Koreans have nothing to worry as long as they do not dissent to political views, but it is also wrong to assume that North Koreans are generally unhappy and just wait to be liberated. One has to keep in mind that we mainly hear the voices in the West of those who left the country due to the suppression there, but many do not leave the country and we do not have their voices in the west obviously. We had the same situation in the USSR back then, where dissidents came to the West, but today that the USSR does not exist anymore, we find many especially elder people in Russia who are longing for that very system which ceased over 30 years ago.

There have been forms of small-scale protests in North Korea, mostly in form of localized riots. These riots are typically sparked by economic grievances, such as shortages of food or other essential goods as well as the state’s demand for unpaid surplus labor or harsh, unsafe labor demands. But all this does not mean in return that the North Korean majority wants to live in a Western system. We can assume that many people are not satisfied with the politics of the Kim regime or local conditions, but they do not question the system as such. We find the same problem in South Korea. South Korea is a democratic country with free and fair elections, but just because a country has free and fair elections, it does not mean that there is a liberal society, and South Korea is a pretty good example for an illiberal democracy. One reason why the society hardly reforms is the fact that they have the same historical and societal values as their Northern counterparts: their society is mostly based on a Confucian world outlook in which traditional hierarchies have to be respected, including a de facto inferiority position of women.

Additionally, many in North Korea are aware that a change of government does not necessarily makes everything better. If the Kims are overthrown, there would be the danger for a power struggle and civil war. We see such examples in countries such as in Libya. The shift of power sometimes even makes countries more unstable, such as today’s Iraq, which has seen a lot of violence and instability since Saddam Hussein’s replacement. Other countries, such as Syria, are seemingly not able to tackle humanitarian crisis on their own as the country is extremely fragmented between rebel territories and territories of the central government, and the central government could be a unifying power for the country (but is also known for its notorious crimes against its own people). And then, there are societies, where are majority simply rejects Western values, such as could be seen in Afghanistan.

Thus, to search for simple solutions for North Korea, such as power transfers, a shift of system, and other Western wishthinking does not really help North Koreans on the ground who have a completely different understanding of the world due to their socialization, history, traditional values, and practical life conditions. We have seen in many examples that protests are able to occur even in the most repressive countries of the world, when a majority of people come to a limit to endure the hardships and fear for their survival. If a large-scale dissatisfaction would be a consent among North Koreans, then they would take action against their government from inside. And in fact, there have been actions. There has been a growing dissent in the Hamgyong Provinces in the early 2000s, which led to small-scale protests. The government had not enough staff to control the flow of information, and many North Koreans from the border areas went to China to make some money and to return to their country to their family. It seems that such activities were even accepted for some time since it brought foreign currency into the country. Political dissatisfaction was even expressed on markets in North Hamgyong and Ryangang Province for the last 20 years and many officials took a blind eye on illegal activities if it did not harm the “honor” of the leader. Anyways, due to the many niches of disobedience, Kim Jong-un has tightened surveillance and tries to restore the citizen’s loyalty by cracking down on illegal things which were previously at least tolerated. As such, the recent teenage generation as well as those who are under 30, grew up with digital media, foreign film consumption and music, and it is hard to restrict their activities. Many try for new ways to continue their lifestyle with which they used to grow up and it seems unlikely that the government will be able to eradicate the new life style, no matter how hard it tries to punish offenders.

I think, all this has to be considered when we reason about how North Koreans relate to their own country and why they continue to rather live in oppression than to flee to neighboring countries, such as Russia and China (the border to South Korea is highly militarized and hardly crossable).

Timo Schmitz, 18 March 2023


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