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News Release

Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea

January 20, 2011


WASHINGTON—A path-breaking new study of North Korea, based on large-scale and unprecedented refugee surveys in China and South Korea, finds that a great many transformations are under way in one of the most isolated, poorly understood and dictatorial countries on earth. In their new book, Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea, authors Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland conclude that North Koreans hold their government in low regard and are far more skeptical of official explanations of their misery than is generally supposed. An overwhelming majority of refugees surveyed support unification with the South and report that their peers remaining in North Korea hold similar views.

The authors also find that North Korea faces tensions that result from rising inequality, corruption, and its citizens' desperate quest for higher social status and income. Despite North Korea's identity as an authoritarian state with economic activity supposedly controlled by the government, private business and corrupt and illegal activities are emerging as the dominant ways of getting ahead throughout the country. State and party positions have become platforms for extortion as officials exploit a vast prison system for the purpose of economic predation.

Disaffection is widespread and documented by the book, but dissidents are fearful of sharing their views with each other. As a result of multiple state failures, most prominently a 1990s famine that killed as many as one million North Koreans (about 5 percent of the country's population), much of the populace has found ways to exist autonomously from the government and to engage in transfers of money, goods, and perhaps most important, information. For that reason authorities have dramatically expanded the definition of "economic crimes." Participants in market activities not only harbor more negative attitudes toward the regime than the general population but also are more willing to communicate their dissenting views to others. They are also 50 percent more likely to be arrested. Once incarcerated, they report extraordinary incidences of public executions, torture, food deprivation, withholding of medical care, and other forms of abuse.

Most of the refugees would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in a clinical setting. Statistical analysis indicates that their psychological problems stem from their harsh experiences, including deaths of family members from starvation, imprisonment, and perceptions of unfairness in the distribution of food aid. Most respondents did not believe that they were beneficiaries of the long-standing international aid program and instead believe that aid was diverted, primarily to the military.

Haggard and Noland recommend increasing the efficiency of humanitarian aid to North Korea and using aid and the promise of financial and technical help to try to persuade the country to undertake domestic political and economic reforms. Aid must include incentives to expand the private sector, the authors say, if it is to avoid politicizing aid projects and reinforcing the repressive state.

Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea
Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland
ISBN paper 978-0-88132-438-9
January 2011 | 182 pp. | $23.95

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About the Authors

Stephan Haggard, visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute, is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, University of California, San Diego (UCSD). He is the author of The Political Economy of the Asian Financial Crisis (2000) and Pathways from the Periphery: The Politics of Growth in the Newly Industrializing Countries (1990) and coauthor of The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions (1995) and Development, Democracy, and Welfare States (2008) with Robert Kaufman and of Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (2007) with Marcus Noland. He is a member of the Institute's Advisory Committee.

Marcus Noland, senior fellow, became deputy director of the Peterson Institute in September 2009. He has been associated with the Institute since 1985. He is concurrently a senior fellow at the East-West Center. He was a senior economist for international economics on the Council of Economic Advisers (1993–94); visiting professor at Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Southern California, Tokyo University, Saitama University (now the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies), and the University of Ghana; and a visiting scholar at the Korea Development Institute. He is author, coauthor, or editor of The Arab Economies in a Changing World (2007), which was selected as Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2007, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (2007), Korea after Kim Jong-il (2004), Industrial Policy in an Era of Globalization: Lessons from Asia (2003), No More Bashing: Building a New Japan–United States Economic Relationship (2001), Avoiding the Apocalypse: The Future of the Two Koreas (2000), which won the 2000–01 Ohira Memorial Award, and Economic Integration of the Korean Peninsula (1998).

About the Peterson Institute for International Economics

The Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics is a private, non-profit, non-partisan research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy. Since 1981 the Institute has provided timely and objective analysis of, and concrete solutions to, a wide range of international economic problems. It is one of the very few economics think tanks that are widely regarded as "non-partisan" by the press and "neutral" by the US Congress, its research staff is cited by the quality media more than that of any other such institution, and it was selected as Top Think Tank in the World for 2008 in the first comprehensive survey of over 5,000 such institutions. Support is provided by a wide range of charitable foundations, private corporations and individual donors, and from earnings on the Institute's publications and capital fund. It moved into its award-winning new building in 2001, and celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2006 and adopted its new name at that time, having previously been the Institute for International Economics.