WASHINGTON — Long imagined as docile followers, North Koreans are increasingly skeptical of their leaders as a burgeoning marketplace and foreign media broaden their worldview, a study said Monday.
Two US academics surveyed North Koreans who fled the country and found that virtually none believed that Kim Jong-Il's regime was improving, while a vast majority backed Korea's reunification on the terms of the US-allied South.
"I think of the North Korean state as a surfer. They're trying to maintain their balance on top of this dynamic, shifting foundation," said Marcus Noland, co-author of the new book "Witness to Transformation."
Noland, deputy director of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, acknowledged that the survey sample was not representative as refugees by definition had problems in their home country.
But he voiced confidence that the findings generally reflected North Korean opinion, saying the study -- of 1,646 refugees in China or South Korea -- used statistical models to balance out demographic factors and sources of bias.
The survey found major changes in North Korean society after its devastating famine in the 1990s, as demand for food created a street-level market. The state also introduced cautious economic reforms but has largely curtailed them.
North Koreans who participated in the market were far more vocal in their dissent and were 50 percent more likely to be arrested, as the regime criminalizes much economic activity.
"In effect, the market is emerging as a semi-autonomous zone of social communication and, potentially, political organizing. From that standpoint, the state is right to fear the market," Noland said.
The survey found that roughly half of North Koreans have access to foreign news or entertainment, a sharp rise from the 1990s, eroding faith in the regime's statements that the United States is causing its woes.
DVD players have proliferated throughout the communist state, allowing North Koreans to watch South Korean films and television, as well as observe the sharp difference in living standards on the divided peninsula, the study said.
"It's the things that are taken for granted when you and I watch a DVD that may be shocking, like the way a family eats, the fact that they own a car, the fact that kids are behaving in certain ways or purchasing their own clothes," said co-author Stephan Haggard, a professor at the University of California at San Diego.
But even with the apparent changes inside North Korea and the looming succession to Kim Jong-Il's young son, the scholars played down chances that the regime will collapse soon.
No more than 45 percent of North Koreans would dare make a joke about their leaders, the study said, and the country lacks labor, religious or other groups around which opposition could coalesce.
"I don't see anything in civil society that would lead to a kind of Egyptian phenomenon," Haggard said, referring to major protests sweeping the Arab nation.
"I think this is going to be change within the regime rather than change of the regime as it becomes more difficult for the leadership to continue on the path it has pursued in the past."
The scholars recommended that the United States support economic engagement with the regime -- to meet dire North Korea's humanitarian needs but also to encourage market forces they see as key to change.
The experts also called for the United States to step up radio broadcasts to give more North Koreans access to US-backed services such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.
US diplomacy with North Korea has been at a standstill for months as Washington demands that the regime take responsibility for attacks on South Korea and recommit to ending its nuclear program.
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