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N Korea at crossroads

On Kim Jong Un's list of worries, public opinion outranks a coup

Silent majority grows weary waiting for elusive 'glory of socialism'

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the country's founding on Sept. 9. His appearances are increasingly geared toward economic endeavors over military ones.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un came face to face in June, the world has been left to wonder whether lasting peace is at hand, or whether the last Cold War vestige is destined to turn hot.

Kim certainly looks to be firmly ensconced. North Korea has no second-in-command, as the absolute dictatorship does not allow for it. And over the six years since he succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, the chairman of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea is said to have brought the military under his full control.

Yet, there is one force the supreme leader appears concerned about: public opinion.

Day after day, Kim visits factories, farms and other facilities across the country. Often, he admonishes senior officials of the party, the cabinet and local committees, yelling, "Work with popular sentiment in mind!"

During his father's reign, North Korea invested to reform plants and other infrastructure. But the country has little to show for it, as bureaucrats reportedly embezzled funds provided by the government and Workers' Party.

The supreme leader makes a show of anger at senior government and party officials, rebuking them as "irresponsible" and "incompetent" and lamenting "chronic red-tape" and "deceit." Kim's outbursts are relayed to citizens through the media.

"Popular sentiment" is a common Kim refrain. Complaining that senior officials do not try hard enough to understand it, he urges them to ensure "all people 'hail to the Workers' Party' from the bottom of their hearts even if they are on a remote island."

A woman works at the Pyongyang Kim Jong-suk Textile Mill on Sept. 7. Kim has pledged to free North Koreans from the need to "tighten their belts twice" from hunger.   © Kyodo

The abrupt shift in Kim's international strategy -- veering from a rapid nuclear buildup to pledging "complete denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula, first to South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April and then to Trump in June -- triggered talk of the potential for a coup. Would disgruntled elements in the military attempt to take power?

But former Workers' Party leaders and citizens who defected from North Korea have denied this possibility. They argue North Koreans have been indoctrinated since childhood and are all too aware of the severe punishments imposed on anyone who violates the rules. They also note that the regime has built multiple layers of security into society, with detailed reports to senior military officers, harsh censorship and extensive monitoring.

Still, there is reason to think Kim's concern for popular sentiment is warranted.

Pyongyang had a different air when this reporter visited two years ago, compared with a trip 14 years ago. Young people looked to be physically larger and more emotionally expressive. And though seniority still rules on the Korean Peninsula due to the influence of Confucianism, Kim has courted the younger set by promoting generational changes.

A source involved in relations between Japan and North Korea said Kim is able to deal with Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping thanks to advice from experts and others "in their 40s and 50s who have the experience of studying abroad."

Yet Kim's economic management remains shaky.

In 2012, soon after his rise to power, Kim declared he would free North Koreans from the need to "tighten their belts twice" from hunger and would "let them fully enjoy the wealth and glory of socialism."

Today's economic reality is still far from glorious. The government's rationing system has effectively collapsed, while the economy contracted for the first time in two years in 2017. All the while, citizens were repeatedly exhorted to wage "economic warfare."

Consumers rely on black markets, or jangmadang, across the country to buy daily necessities. But there have been reports of protests after officials forced merchants to hand over money. The gap between haves and have-nots appears to be widening.

Public loyalty to the regime is said to be weakening, as weary citizens are repeatedly mobilized for political gatherings, parades and large-scale construction projects.

A torchlight parade is held in Pyongyang on Sept. 10, as part of the 70th anniversary festivities. Citizens are regularly mobilized for political gatherings, parades and large-scale construction projects.   © Kyodo

North Korea "now needs not only orders from above but consent from below," said a source connected with the regime.

"Consent from below" is contingent upon improvements to citizens' daily lives. Economic conditions affect the stability of every government. North Korea is no exception, though the degree of influence might differ.

Earlier this year, Kim changed North Korea's "Byungjin" policy, which called for developing nuclear weapons and the economy in parallel. Instead, the economy is now the top priority.

Of Kim's public appearances in 2018, reported by the North Korean media, activities related to the economy have increased significantly, compared with less than 20% in 2017. The ratio of military-related appearances has plunged, from around 50%.

To achieve high economic growth, North Korea needs to convince the international community to lift sanctions as well as entice capital and economic assistance from abroad. Abandoning nuclear weapons and instituting open-door policies are prerequisites for attracting foreign money.

Nevertheless, the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers' Party, said in its Sept. 4 online edition that the sanctions will not matter if North Korea reinforces its own economic strength. This hard line suggests Pyongyang has yet to truly prioritize economic development.

Could public frustration reach a boiling point?

North Korea seemed to relish the influence-peddling scandal and public protests that brought down South Korean President Park Geun-hye in 2017. The North's media covered the conservative Park's troubles day after day, almost as if the regime hoped to further inflame public sentiment in the South. But might this have also spread the notion that regime change is possible?

All eyes will be on Kim's next move -- and the public's reaction.

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