Citizens in North Korea are becoming increasingly angry that state media is touting this week’s cruise missile tests as a major national defense achievement when many are struggling to find their next meal, sources in the country told RFA.
Pyongyang over the weekend tested a new long-range cruise missile with a range of 1,500 kilometers (930 miles), which puts targets in Japan within reach. Cruise missiles are low-flying and harder to defend against than ballistic missiles.
North Korea also conducted ballistic missile tests on Wednesday, launches which coincided with a South Korean submarine-launched missile test, a visit to Seoul by China’s foreign minister, and a three-way meeting between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington to discuss North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Chronically short of food, North Korea has seen starvation deaths this year in the wake of the closure of the Sino-Korean border and suspension of trade with China in Jan. 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Against that backdrop, citizens are grumbling that their government does not care about their plight.
“The people are so antipathetic, asking how the authorities can do such things as if they don’t know that many of us here are starving because of this economic crisis,” said a resident of the northeastern coastal city of Hamhung, in South Hamgyong province.
“The people say that Kim Jong Un doesn’t even know that the people are starving and he’s doing things like that,” the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service.
Missile tests, many people say, are meaningless when the army cannot even feed its soldiers, according to the source.
“They are saying that the People’s Army can’t fight a war because the soldiers are subsisting on corn and rice, and they can’t survive in the military unless their family sends money to support their military life,” said the source.
“Things have not changed in the slightest since the era of Kim Jong Il, when the government was saying the military was not afraid of war and that we had the greatest armed force in the world with our missiles and our troops,” the source said.
Kim Jong Il, leader Kim Jong Un’s father and predecessor, was in power during the 1994-1998 North Korean famine, which killed as many as 10 percent of the country’s then population of 22 million.
The source said the lack of nutrition for soldiers was more dangerous to them than any external threat.
“They don’t have the strength to even hold bullets. If you don’t have money to send to your enlisted son, you have to steal for him,” said the source.
“Now the state is widely promoting that this new long-range cruise missile is another deterrence method that will guarantee the safety of the country and will suppress military action against our republic by hostile forces,” the second source said.
But many in North Korea disagree with this approach and would prefer that the government ask the outside world for help, according to the source.
“They say it’s wrong to block dialogue with the outside and focus only on missile development. It’s an act of self-destruction and threatens the safety of the nation and the people.”
Another source, a resident of North Hamgyong province’s Rason city, which lies within a Special Economic Zone near the Chinese and Russian borders, told RFA that state propaganda is describing the long-range cruise missile tests as an act of self-defense that supports peace.
“People are reacting harshly, saying they don’t understand how,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“They say the government has no interest in the people’s livelihood in this crisis, and they are only doing things like this to enhance their prestige,” the second source said.
With North Korea reeling from the prolonged coronavirus pandemic, food shortages, and recent flood damage, they think the missile launches are tone-deaf, according to the second source.
“Naturally the relatively few government officials who will remain in power only if they continue to develop missiles are all positive about the news of the missile launch,” the second source said.
“But the majority of residents express strong concern and resentment, saying, ‘North Korea’s missile provocation is an act of self-harm that destroys people’s livelihood and leads the country to self-destruction.’”
North Koreans are also tired of the county’s frequent military parades, dismissing them as ploys to distract the masses during the severe economic crisis.
North Korea last week held a midnight parade in the capital Pyongyang last week to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the country.
“The people reacted coldly to the news of the parade, which included members of the various civil defense forces,” a resident of South Pyongan told RFA.
“People are saying that they held the parade to give faith to the people because there’s no food to eat here in North Korea. They also did it to show that self-reliance is the only way to survive. That’s why I don’t think military parades are worth much,” said the South Pyongan source.
The parade is a sign that Kim Jong Un is not in touch with the people and their needs.
“He seems to have no idea that the residents don’t want to see three military parades in less than a year. Some are strongly criticizing the frivolity of the whole thing, saying that the state is ignoring the people’s livelihood during this crisis and only concerned about playing politics,” said the third source.
A fourth source, from North Pyongan, told RFA that the amount of training required to prepare for a military parade is a waste of the army’s resources.
“During the parade on October 10 of last year for the anniversary of the founding of the party, some of the participants said they had undergone intense training for six months,” said the fourth source, who declined to be named.
“Residents are aware that the solders can’t eat well, but they work hard to prepare for parade day and their lips are all chapped. How can there be a positive response to a military parade,” the fourth source said.
The source said it was unfair that soldiers sacrifice six months of their time and their health for these military parades, while Kim Jong Un prepares by dressing up as his grandfather, national founder and North Korea’s first leader Kim Il Sung.
Kim Il Sung remains a revered figure in North Korean culture, and legends of his deeds as an anti-Japanese guerilla during World War II and as a benevolent ruler afterward are taught to children from a young age.
When Kim Jong Un was being groomed to rule the country shortly before his father’s death in 2011, North Korea watchers noted that his attire and hairstyle closely resembled that of a young Kim Il Sung, a look he has maintained to the present. But many people inside North Korea say that despite the tribute, Kim Jong Un is not even a shadow of his grandfather.
“Kim Jong Un just imitates his grandfather, right up to the hairstyle… What’s the point of copying his appearance? He needs to fix the rot in this country but he’s not doing that.
Reported by Jeong Yon Park for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.