Loyalty To North Korean State Declining By Generation

Loyalty To North Korean State Declining By Generation

Those who came of ae during Arduous March have less faith in the regime’s benevolence

http://www.nknews.org/2015/01/ loyalty-to-n-korean-state- declining-by-generation/

January 14th, 2015

Andrei Lankov

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” This quote is often misattributed to Socrates, while it is actually paraphrased from Aristophanes. At any rate, such sentiments are more than 2,000 years old, but when you talk to older North Koreans, you hear complaints that are remarkably similar.

Indeed, young North Koreans, whose teenage years coincided with the economic calamity of the Arduous March, are very different from their parents and grandparents. They indeed love luxury and are far less respectful to established authority. But what of their elders?


Let us begin our short review of North Korea’s generational landscape with the eldest living generation, people 60 and older. These wise old men and women were born before the 1950s and were young when the Kim dynasty was in its infancy – but still they were socialized by the Kim family regime.

It is difficult to generalize, but it seems clear that many of this generation were (and still are) true believers in the regime, its ideology and many of its policies. They are probably too young to have much in the way of first-hand memories of the colonial era, but they still vividly remember stories of national humiliation and exploitation told by their parents and older siblings.

They usually have some memories of the Korean War, which the vast majority of them saw as an unprovoked attack by the South Koreans and their American puppet masters – this official story is still almost universally believed in North Korea. Therefore, this generation tends to blame all the destruction and atrocities committed during the Korean War on “the U.S. imperialists and their Southern stooges.” More often then not, they blame Americans for North Korea’s current misfortunes as well. They Kim Il Sung as a strong leader who stood up to the Yankees, and saved their country from total annihilation.

…those of this generation who had politically improper thoughts were likely to be killed or imprisoned

They formative years coincided with the fast economic recovery of the country following the war. While this impressive economic growth of the late 1950s and early 1960s did not always translate into an increase in the common people’s living standards, it was easy to see the fruits of this growth and was a truly impressive sight. Therefore, many of them became firmer believers in the great potential of the Leninist state socialist model.

Finally, it is important to remember that the 60-somethings were the generation hardest hit by the purges that accompanied the emergence of Kim Il Sung’s one-man rule in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This meant that those of this generation who had politically improper thoughts were likely to be killed or imprisoned, while survivors were people who learnt to keep in line. In other words, even when they think critically, their life experience taught them to remain silent and simulate officially sponsored enthusiasm whenever required by the government.


The next generation are people who are now between 40 and 60 years of age. They can be described as the children of mature Kimilsungism. They also tend to be loyal to the government, since they grew up in a society with no alternatives to the established model. From a very young age, they were subjected to an unbelievably intense ideological indoctrination. Until recently, they had virtually no access to uncensored overseas information, and in many cases, until the mid-1990s they sincerely believed that they were living in a utopia surrounded by a hellish outside world.

The only avenue of social advancement open to this generation was cooperation with the system. They understood that social success would come only to those willing and able to demonstrate real or at least well feigned loyalty to the system and its leaders.

Nonetheless, their commitment may have been less sincere than the commitment of their parents. Their parents saw great economic progress, but they saw first stagnation and then gradual – soon to become rapid – economic decline. North Korea stopped growing in the late 1960s, and stagnated until the mid-1980s, before its economy gradually started to shrink and then, as it entered the 1990s, rapidly declined. Most of this middle-aged generation suffered greatly during the time of the Arduous March, and this made many of them reconsider their long-held assumptions.

A family in North Korea. Eric Lafforgue

As a result, many of this generation nurture some secret doubts about certain major aspects of the system. Some of them – very few – are probably even closet dissidents, who have lost all faith in the system. Most of them, however, probably just came to see official events as necessary empty rituals and the official ideology as rather lacking, but nonetheless a fact of life that is not worth worrying about too much.

This generation have made significant compromises; they have become market traders, smugglers and corrupt officials. It is almost impossible for them to not have become a bit cynical about the system, but they are not freedom fighters (at least not yet).


Their children, people in their 20s and 30s, are remarkably different. They can be described as the “changmadang (market) generation.” Their experiences are different from all but the oldest North Koreans.

They grew up in a period of socio-economic collapse and great uncertainty. They were never subjected to serious ideological indoctrination, and they saw a yawning disparity between the professed ideals and the realities of North Korean life.

Most of them learnt early on that their success, and even physical survival, depends on their hard work, ruthlessness and luck, not on benevolence of the Kimist state. Indeed, they never received much in the way of help from the government. Most of them therefore tend to see party officials, police officers and propagandists as a swarm of corrupt parasites living off the labor of the hardworking majority.

…the changmadang generation know perfectly well that North Korea is economically far behind its neighbors, though they might not fully comprehend the size of the gap

Contrary to what many would like to believe, this does not necessarily make them enemies of the North Korean state as such. Like their parents and grandparents, many of these people, in spite of their remarkable cynicism and pragmatism, are sincere patriots, who feel a real level of commitment to an abstract ideal of (North) Korean state.

At the same time, the changmadang generation know perfectly well that North Korea is economically far behind its neighbors, though they might not fully comprehend the size of the gap. This makes them even more skeptical about the pronouncements of the official media.

It might sound strange to many readers, but these young adults also grew during the most permissive period of North Korean history. In the years 1994-2011 under the reign of Kim Jong Il, the North Korean state was indeed very brutal by world standards, but it was significantly more liberal than during the times of high-Kimilsungism. Hence, the younger generation are less scared of the state and are more willing to discuss politically sensitive topics amongst themselves.

It seems that in the long run, the unstoppable rise of this new generation does not bode well for the future of the North Korean regime. The young are far better informed about the outside world, somewhat less scared of the authorities, and more outspoken than their parents and grandparents. Nonetheless, it still remains to be seen what the future will hold for the people young enough to be the children of this author.

Main picture: Eric Lafforgue

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About the Author

Andrei Lankov

Andrei Nikolaevich Lankov is a Russian scholar of Asia and a specialist in Korean studies. He completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Leningrad State University in 1986 and 1989, respectively; He also attended Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung University in 1985. Following his graduate studies, he taught Korean history and language at his alma mater, and in 1992 went to South Korea for work; he moved to Australia in 1996 to take up a post at the Australian National University, and moved back to Seoul to teach at Kookmin University in 2004. Dr. Lankov has a DPRK-themed Livejournal blog in Russian with occasional English posts, where he documents aspects of life in North (and South) Korea, together with his musings and links to his publications. He also writes columns for the English-language daily The Korea Times.

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