‘Market generation’ has inkling of capitalism, Korean pop culture; seen less loyal to dynastic ruler
Lee Ye-eun vividly remembers the poverty her family went through in North Korea in the 1990s, during a famine believed to have cost some 2 million lives.
“Like other families, my family was living from hand to mouth and went to the nearby mountain each day to pluck grass to make porridge. My younger brother died of malnutrition,” Lee, 20, told The Korea Herald.
“My mother sold noodles at a marketplace to feed our family. The education I received was intended only to worship the dynastic ruler,” said the university student, who arrived in the South in 2007 after crossing the border with China in 2004.
Deprived of state benefits such as proper education, food rationing and medical care, her underfed peers in the communist state are thought to be less loyal to the dynastic ruler than the older generations.
Many of them have non-conformist ideas, albeit inwardly as they experienced the devastating famine, known as the “Arduous March” in the mid- and late 1990s, experts said. International isolation following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, bungled economic policies and flooding caused one of the country’s worst famines.
These people in their early 20s have now started climbing up the military and social ladders, brightening the prospect of change in the reclusive state.
“Unlike their parents’ generations that benefited from support programs by the North’s ruling Workers’ Party or its leader, the young generations were not fed by the state but by their parents who made a meager living through market activities,” said Ahn Chan-il, director of the World North Korea Research Center.
“They, thus, have no loyalty (for their leader). They may be critical of the current regime and could be a destabilizing factor for the ruling elites.”
Dubbed the “market generation,” they apparently have an inkling of the capitalist mechanism as their parents heavily relied on the market to bring home the bacon following the collapse of the food rationing system ― the critical source of public support for the autocratic leadership.
Before its national founder Kim Il-sung died in 1994, the North’s overall economic conditions were manageable with the rationing program working to secure much respect for the ruler.
Being exposed to South Korean pop culture through smuggled DVDs secretly circulating at marketplaces, some of them have also realized that they were deceived by the negative propaganda against their southern brethren.
“We had been brainwashed and thought that a capitalist society was really bad, and we could not live in it. That was before I watched Korean dramas and movies,” said Kim Moses, who was born in the North in 1987 and defected to the South in 2010.
“We came to terms with the reality that what was said there was all wrong. We had heard that the South was really poor, a totally different image reflected in the South Korean dramas.”
The discrepancy between what they heard and the reality led to their frustration and discontent, which further deepened amid a tightening state control over people’s economic market activities.
“Many merchants were not successful as they had no job skills given that they had relied only on the food rationing program. Adding insult to injury, there were many restrictions at the marketplace, and our stuff was all confiscated in some cases,” said Kim.
“Many were obviously disgruntled, saying that even though they did not offer us food rations, they took away our stuff and even punished us.”
Such dissatisfaction was deeper among those who had no other option but to temporarily move to China to make a living, Kim recalled.
“Along the border areas, they crossed the river into China to get jobs, hoping to return soon to support their families. When caught, their money and all properties were seized. On top of that, they faced severe punishments,” said Kim.
“Oftentimes they just became stranded in a foreign country.”
With the growing displeasure over the state governance, the young generation could become the driving force for a much-needed change in the North some time later, observers said.
“In a situation where the North is forced to make some overhaul (for its survival), these people could spearhead the internal change. But opening up completely is still far from the reality now,” said Jeung Young-tae, senior researcher at Korea Institute for National Unification.
Jeung also noted that particularly in the military, the disgruntled generation could cause problems such as desertions and other aberrant behavior.
“Their discontent may deepen as the rationing system even in the military crumbles. They could leave their bases, particularly in the units near the border with China and sell their military property at marketplaces,” he said.
“This sort of corruptive behavior may not lead to some sort of coup in the short term, but we cannot rule out the possibility.”
Despite the anticipation about their role in bringing about a change in the North, some experts say that there is not much we can expect from the young generation.
“Basically, they did not receive proper education. Therefore, it is somewhat difficult to believe that they can make any critical political moves. They would rather try to climb up the social ladder while struggling to conform to the existing system,” said Dong Yong-seung, a North Korea specialist at Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul.
By Song Sang-ho
<관련 한글 기사>
불만 많은 북한 젊은이들, 변화 불러올까?
근처 산에서 풀을 뽑아다가 쑤어 먹은 풀죽, 영양실조로 죽은 동생, 지도자를 찬양하는 내용뿐인 교육, 이것이 2007년 탈북한 이예은씨가 기억하는 1990년대의 북한이다.
제대로 된 교육, 의료 혜택도 누리지 못하고 식량 배급도 받지 못한 북한의 빈곤층은, 이전 세대만큼 지도자에게 충성하지 않는다.
북한의 국제적인 고립, 서투른 경제정책, 그리고 자연재해는 심각한 기근을 초래했다. 1990년 중, 후반, “고난의 행군”을 겪은 20대 청년들은, 이제 사회 지도층이 되어 북한의 미래를 바꿀 것이라는 새로운 전망을 준다.
세계 북한 연구센터 소장 안찬일씨는 “지금 지도층으로 오르려는 세대는 기성세대와는 다르게 국가의 혜택을 직접적으로 받지 못했고, 부모님의 시장 활동으로 근근이 살아왔다”고 말했다. 또한 “따라서 지도자에 대한 충성심이 없으므로, 북한의 기성 지도층을 무너뜨릴 수도 있다”고 말했다.
“장마당 세대”라고 불리는 이 젊은 세대는, 부모 세대의 시장 활동으로 자본주의의 개념을 눈치 채고 있고, 남한에서 밀입된 드라마, 영화에 의해 북한의 왜곡된 실상에 대해서도 알고 있다.
이 년 전 탈북한 김모세씨는 “자본주의 사회가 나쁜 것이라고 세뇌 당했으며, 나중에는 남한이 드라마에서 비춰지는 것과는 반대로 가난하고 불우한 나라라고 배웠다”고 말했다.
배운 것과 현실의 차이는 사람들의 불만을 낳았고, 국가는 국민들의 시장 활동마저 옥죄기 시작했다. 직업에 필요한 기술을 익히지 못한 상태에서, 식량 배급도 이루어 지지 않았고, 국가의 통제, 탈취, 처벌만이 있을 뿐이었다.
사람들은 살기 위해 중국으로 밀입국을 시도하는 수밖에 없었다. 김씨는 “사람들은 가족을 부양하기 위해 중국 국경선을 넘었다”며 “실패할 때에는 엄중한 처벌과 함께 가진 것을 모두 빼앗겼다”고 말했다.
전문가들은 국가에 대한 불만이 더해감에 따라, 젊은 세대가 장차 북한의 변화를 이끄는 추진력을 줄 수 있다고 말한다.
정영태 통일연구원 선임연구위원은 특히 군대에서 젊은 세대가 탈영 등 문제를 일으킬 수 있다고 지적했다. 그는 이러한 행동이 곧바로 쿠데타 등으로 이어질 가능성이 낮기는 하지만 아예 없는 것은 아니라고 말했다.
그러나 일부 전문가들은 젊은 세대로부터 기대할 수 있는 것이 많지 않다고 말했다.
삼성경제연구소의 동영승 연구원은 젊은 세대의 교육 수준이 높지 않기 때문에 변화에 필요한 정치적인 행보를 보이기 보다는 이미 존재하는 사회계층 내에서 좀 더 높은 위치에 오르려고 시도할 확률이 높다고 꼬집었다