Kim Jong Un, in a costume meant to evoke memories of his revered grandfather Kim Il Sung, inspects the construction preparations for the Onpho greenhouse farm in Kyongsong County in North Hamgyong Province in 2018. Photo: AFP / KCNA VIA KNS

There’s a country in the West where not a few people have been conditioned such that, when they disagree with official policy, they’re ready to load up their weapons with real bullets and march off to do battle with the government.

And then there’s North Korea, where dissent is so comparatively rare that outsiders often imagine the ruler has succeeded in indoctrinating the population to worship and obey him single-mindedly.

That imagining wasn’t far-fetched when the original ruler, Kim Il Sung, was still alive. Kim made some awful mistakes, starting with his 1950 invasion of South Korea to start the Korean War – nearly three horrible years in which a quarter of the northern population died for practically zero net territorial gain.

Still, North Koreans with few exceptions bought into the cult of personality surrounding the Great Leader. One defector told me that even years after he had escaped the country he could not bring himself to speak ill of Kim Il Sung.

The buying in became less complete after Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and the country, under his son the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, promptly entered a terrible famine in which at least 600,000 people died. North Koreans began venting about the regime to a considerably greater extent.

They were careful, of course, about who was listening as they spoke their minds. And even when he coast seemed reasonably clear they directed their criticisms at Kim’s subordinates, not usually at the ruler by name. They didn’t want to be sent off to camps.

The current, third-generation ruler, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, went all out in altering his costume, hairstyle and body build (and, some say, his facial features, via plastic surgery) to project an image of being like his revered grandfather rather than his hapless father.

Nevertheless, reports suggest that Jong Un’s administration these days is suffering much the same disrespect that the populace meted out to his father’s. And the reason is the same: food shortages, from which people once again are starving and dying although the situation so far is by no means so dire as it was in the famine of the mid-1990s.

The ruler is the regime: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a vegetable greenhouse farm and tree nursery in Jungphyong in Kyongsong County, North Hamgyong Province, in 2019. Photo: AFP / KCNA VIA KNS

From three news organizations based abroad that are set up to gather news surreptitiously by speaking with sources inside the country, we now hear that discontent is widespread.

In North Hamgyong province the authorities have made available a week’s worth of grain purportedly from military storehouses – and people are belittling the gesture, according to DailyNK.

The Seoul-based outlet’s account quotes a source on the ground in the province that includes the country’s third-largest city, Chongjin – home to many members of a new middle class that arose out of market dealings during and after the ’90s famine and that had been advancing until the current troubles arose:

Though the authorities are selling the rice at below-market prices, locals are reportedly quite dissatisfied with receiving only a week’s worth of food.

In fact, locals are denouncing the measure. “For the first time in our lives, we are receiving rice that could either be [government] rations or disaster relief – we don’t know which,” they say, according to the source. “But if they give us only a week’s worth of staple grains [then] all [the government] is telling us to do is just eke by.” 

Many Chongjin residents say that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic they lived so well on their business acumen and talents that they felt no envy toward people living in the Sino-North Korean border region, who were generally afforded better opportunities for cross-border trade.

They complain, however, that despite the fact they have suffered greatly since the border was sealed, the state has provided them rations that amount to “bird feed.” Outraged, they are saying, “These rations apparently aim to assuage the people, but we don’t want them,” according to the source. 

“If they open the border, Chongjin residents could confidently obtain three months’ worth of food from Chinese traders and sell it off in three days in the town square,” some members of the donju, the country’s wealthy entrepreneurial class, are saying, according to the source. “The state can’t do a thing and is simply making the people feel insecure. If the state can’t do anything, it should just sit back and get out of the way.”

Little if any food is being imported due to Kim Jong Un’s extreme policy of tightly closing the borders to keep the coronavirus contagion out. As Asia Times has reported, it appears Kim believes that not just human contact but contact with dry cargoes poses a major infection danger – a view that is not scientifically supported.

North Korean ship docked at Nampo port, North Korea. Not much of anything is entering the country under Kim’s policy for preventing coronavirus contamination. Photo: AFP / Eric Lafforgue / Hans Lucas

Beyond this month’s paltry government grain distribution gesture, the authorities are telling the people they’re on their own when it comes to providing what they project as a crisis that could last longer than three years before the Covid-19 threat is vanquished and it’s safe to resume trade, according to a report from Radio Free Asia. US government-funded RFA cites its own sources inside the country.

“Ordinary people say that the government is shirking its responsibility,” RFA reports. And it quotes a resident who dared to criticize Kim Jong Un personally.

“Factory workers have to go to the fields and work with hoes in their hands now,” said [a] source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“These days all the factory workers in Chongjin are concentrating on farm work as they have been mobilized for their factory fields. They are busy right now removing weeds from the fields from the early morning to the late afternoon,” [this] source told RFA.

The residents in Chongjin are also complaining, according to [this] source, saying that the food shortage there is so bad that they can hardly solve their food issues for the next three days, and being told to survive three years is like a “death sentence.”

“The Highest Dignity stressed that rice is a vital element that maintains the existence and self-reliance of our country, [this] source said, using an honorific term to refer to the country’s leader Kim Jong Un.

“But how can an affluent leader and other high-ranking officials understand the reality of the hungry people?” said [this] source.

[This] source said the longer the border with China remains closed, the closer to rock bottom the people fall.

“The people wonder how many of them should starve to death before the authorities come to their senses.”

Can’t or won’t feed his people: Kim Jong-Un in 2017 inspects the newly-built Samjiyon potato farina production factory in Ryanggang Province, North Korea. Photo AFP / KCNA VIA KNS

Some hungry people are less articulate but no less outspoken in their complaints, according to Jiro Ishimaru, editor in chief of Osaka-based AsiaPress, which maintains its own corps of North Korean residents it has trained on the other side of the border as reporters and sent back in equipped with smuggled Chinese cellphones. Ishimaru quotes one of them:

“The market is filled with sighs, shouts and screams. I can hear the sobbing of those who lost money and those who cannot afford the high prices. Many elderly people who live alone are starving to death,” said a reporting partner from North Hamkyung Province. No one knows how to cope with and defend against the current chaos, and the future of the situation is entirely unclear.

In Ishimaru’s own view, “the limitations of the Kim Jong Un regime’s coronavirus quarantine policy are apparent. Even if North Korea itself is closed off from the rest of the world the Covid-19 pandemic will never be able to end, unless vaccination progresses in China and other neighboring countries.”

He adds, ‘The lives of the people of North Korea have been deteriorating and the country is facing a humanitarian crisis. The Kim Jong-un regime must ask the international community for urgent assistance in food and vaccines, and the international community should hasten to begin discussions.”

A cautionary footnote: The degree of outspokenness that’s reported now almost surely is not sufficient to signal an uprising any time soon. For one thing, North Koreans lack experience and know-how in making revolution.

For another, as a wise Indian economist pointed out to me in the 1980s, people who don’t have enough to eat are physically unable to do much more than procreate and get through the day alive.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.