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New Research Suggests N. Koreans Souring Toward Government

North Korea's parliament has convened, for a session widely seen as political theater to approve decisions made from above. However, new research indicates political sentiment is not as unanimous around the country as it is in Pyongyang's halls of marble.

North Korea experts here in Seoul are keeping a close eye on the Supreme People's Assembly session, which opened Friday in Pyongyang. They are watching for any sign of reshuffling among the North's elite, particularly steps to groom North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor.

What nobody expects to see is open debate. Unlike other parliaments, where political disputes can get loud and even physical, Pyongyang's legislature is often described as a rubber stamp for the decisions of Kim Jong Il.

But not all political winds are blowing in Mr. Kim's direction. Marcus Noland, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says a recent survey of North Korean defectors indicates a souring mood toward the leadership.

"There's increasingly negative feelings toward the regime, and increasing disbelief of the regime's basic narrative that ascribes all ills to hostile foreign forces," he said.

Noland and co-researcher Stephen Haggard of the University of California San Diego, acknowledge that defectors are biased to an extent, having left North Korea in the first place.

Still, he says changes within the defector population show a political shift. In the mid-to-late 90s, he says, people fled North Korea mainly in search of food and necessities. He says a 2008 survey reveals a distinctly different cross section of defectors.

"Among the people who have left more recently, a rising share cited political concerns," he said, "Those people are disproportionately educated, may have been in the party, or at least in the core political class."

Noland says even before North Korea surprised its population with confiscatory currency reform in November, authorities were cracking down on private markets. Because of the government's failure to feed people, small markets had become necessary for survival, but they also gave North Koreans a place to talk to each other.

"One of the things that I think is so discomforting to the government is that the market seems to have emerged as this kind of semi-autonomous zone of social communication. People involved in market activities are more likely to have communicated their negative views toward the government to their peers," he said.

His survey found that North Koreans who engaged in market activity were 50 percent more likely to get arrested.

"So essentially, the penal system is sweeping off these large numbers of typical North Korean citizens, subjecting them to absolutely horrific abuses and letting them go. And we think this is having the ironic affect of actually politicizing the population," he said.

Noland says it is still too risky for any North Koreans to engage in open dissent, and that there are no real organizations to channel opposition anyway. Instead, he says, more people are engaging in low-level forms of resistance, such as listening to foreign broadcasts. He says last November's currency reform, and resulting hyperinflation for food, are likely to put an "exclamation point" (emphasis) on the discontent he found in his 2008 survey.