In the last 55 years over 25,000 North Koreans have made their way to South Korea, and only three have returned to North Korea. These three are regularly presented on North Korean media, talking about how they returned north because life is better there. But North Koreans now know this is not true and South Korean intelligence experts believe that the three who returned were really spies sent south as refugees and in fear of getting caught. Spending the rest of their lives in a South Korean prison was the only incentive that could send them north again.
South Korea intelligence agencies know this because they have collected a lot of information on how North Korea operates, by interviewing the steady flow of refugees arriving in South Korea (via China and the South Korean embassies in neighboring countries like Thailand). For the last decade, over a thousand of these refugees have arrived each year. In the last few years China and North Korea have increased their efforts to reduce that number, which peaked at 2,900 in 2009, and was 1,500 last year. These determined and desperate people keep coming and they have much to tell.
Separate interviews are compared and checked against each other to obtain an updated and accurate first-hand view of life in the north. Computers make this easy. This process also helps detect the spies North Korea tries (often with success) to get into the south via the refugee route. Some of these spies are detected and turned (allowed to become South Korean “double agents” and feed false information back to their controllers in the north).
While the refugees detail the growing decline in living standards up north, it’s also become clear that there is a very real generational shift in loyalties in the north. The generation who grew up during the 1990s famine (that killed about ten percent of the population and starved most of the rest for years) no longer believes in the North Korean dictatorship. Many who came of age before 1990 still do, but for most everyone under 30 the state is the enemy and self-reliance, and not a benevolent dictatorship, is the only way to survive. This has apparently made it easier to turn the North Korean spies trying to get into South Korea as refugees. Some of these spies are classified as hardcore believers in the northern government, but a growing number are found to be more flexible in their outlook.
The North Korean government has been fighting these new attitudes more and more, as this generation of unbelievers grows larger each year. The more astute members of the northern leadership see this as a no-win situation. Eventually most North Koreans will be very hostile to the state and more adept at making money in spite of the government, or simply getting out of the country. Most of the leadership is still afraid of enacting Chinese style economic reforms because they believe a more affluent population would seek revenge for the decades of misrule and tyranny. The Chinese say that didn’t happen in China. The North Koreans point out that, as bad as the Chinese communists were in the 1950s and 60s (killing over 50 million people via starvation, labor camps, and execution), that was not as bad (proportionately) as what the North Koreans have suffered. Moreover, the North Korean leaders point out that, historically, Koreans have been a bit more excitable and brutal when aroused by misrule. The Chinese say times have changed but the North Korean leaders are not yet willing to bet their lives on that being the case.
The refugees report that most North Koreans understand that the police state up there is strong enough to suppress any uprising now or in the foreseeable future and that the only real threat to the dictatorship is intervention (openly or via a coup) by China. Few refugees from the north believe there will be a successful rebellion up there anytime soon and that’s why they took such large risks to get to the south.