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'The North Korean regime will collapse within five to seven years’

The greatest threat to the North Korean regime is not the outside world but its own developing private market and the growing frictions at the top. This was the argument put forward by North Korean exile Jang Jin-sung in his lecture in Leiden on 18 September 2014.

Rising tension

According to Jang, the power basis of leader Kim Jong-un is faltering. In Leiden’s Academy Building, Jang explained that a form of civil war is raging throughout the country, between the old party elite and the emerging elite that is benefiting from the new private market. Failing government policies led to famines. As a result, citizens and companies began trading among themselves, which created a large-scale black market. Jang (not his real name) fled in 2004 to South Korea. He was the favourite court poet of Kim Jong-il but became disillusioned when he understood how much the people were suffering. Earlier this year he published his memoirs under the title Dear Leader.

Jang Jin-sung
Jang Jin-sung

Total control

Jang listed the powers that the state uses to try to keep citizens in its grip: total control through art, culture and media and the permanent threat of punishment and terror. The state is desperately trying to impose a divine faith in the leader Kim Jong-un. Jang offered the fascinated audience a glimpse of life behind the scenes of a dictatorship: painters who are forced to always portray the Leader smiling, Saturdays that have to be spent on politics and propaganda, compulsory membership of an organisation from infancy to adulthood.


He is of the opinion that the regime will not last because even the children of the current political elite are going their own way, as is witnessed by the fact that many of them are also trading on the black market. ‘The struggle for economic, business and commercial rights will accelerate the downfall of the North Korean regime. Leiden University students will soon be able to teach in North Korea,’ he predicts.

The press conference
The press conference

Seven exiles

A total of seven North Korean exiles spoke at the two-day conference ‘A state of Non-Legitimacy’ in Leiden. All used to hold senior positions in the regime: in addition to Jang there were top diplomats, an ex-senior official of the Ministry of Security of the People and a high-ranking military officer. The speakers revealed the ways in which the state tries to exercise total control over society and how counter-intelligence agents do their work. They also talked about how North Korea is able to find capital despite the sanctions imposed on the country. Four of the speakers addressed the national and international press, including the Dutch programme Nieuwsuur and the Japanese state television.

Smuggling pamphlets

The question that dominated the press conference and that was asked in a number of forms was: ‘How can we bring down the North Korean regime?’ Resistance must come from the people themselves, argued the four speakers. By letting the people know that things can be different, and informing them about freedom and democracy. This is the work that associations of exiles are doing, who smuggle pamphlets across the border from China. It is a difficult and laborious process. ‘Because,’ said the former senior military officer, raising his voice, ‘there is nobody to finance us.’ Jang hopes that this conference will contribute to Europeans supporting their actions.


Initiator of the conference and Professor of Korean Studies Remco Breuker praised the speakers for their courage in telling their critical account. This is the first time that so many North Korean exiles have spoken so openly at an academic conference. He considers their perspective to be ‘highly reliable’. ‘We have spoken to many North Korean exiles and they all tell the same story.’

More insight

Exiles from North Korea offer more insight into the real state of the country, he argues. ‘We now know much more about the growing black market and the fact that citizens and companies are beginning to develop initiatives that undermine the regime. Thanks to these speakers we can understand the country better and the regime has become less of a mystery. We will be conducting new research and producing new publications. I also hope that we can use this conference to finance grants for North Korean refugees.’

Contacts strengthened

What else has this conference achieved? ‘A lot of attention. From researchers and journalists, as well as from international diplomats and policy makers. Contacts have been strengthened and not only for now. This is important if we want to help North Korea.’


(18 September 2014)


Why Leiden?

The question is why the North Korean exiles chose Leiden. Breuker: ‘This has partially to do with personal contacts. Jang trusts me; I am the Dutch translator of his book 'Dear Leader’. What also convinced both him and the other speakers is the motto of our university: bastion of freedom. That motto is not just a PR slogan; it represents a real commitment to offering researchers freedom. This is also the reason that the university was keen to invest in this conference.’

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