North Korea's state-run media have been broadcasting images of Pyongyang residents weeping in sorrow following the death of their leader Kim Jong-il, playing up the atmosphere of sadness.
But defectors from the Stalinist state claim that the atmosphere is quite different outside of the capital. They said many residents of Pyongyang, where the North Korean elite live, may well be genuinely sad at the passing of their cherished leader. But those in the rural provinces, who have not been receiving state food rations, are probably shedding "crocodile tears," they said.
◆ Huge Gap in Privileges
North Korea can be divided into Pyongyang, whose residents continue to receive state food rations, and areas outside of the capital, where people have to fend for themselves.
"We can even say there are two different countries, rich Pyongyang and poor provincial areas," said one high-ranking North Korean defector. Food rations are an effective means used by communist regimes to win the loyalty of the public, he added.
According to another North Korean defector and former state official, "When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, the food distribution system was still functioning and the majority of North Koreans paid condolences to their leader."
"But at this point, when the food rations are not available anywhere except Pyongyang, just how many people do you think are truly sad about the death of Kim Jong-il?" he added.
The country's food distribution system collapsed during the late 1990s, when more than a million people died due to a widespread famine and chronic flooding. North Koreans who had waited for state food rations ended up starving, while those who stripped down equipment at factories and sold them at open-air markets managed to survive.
But even during those days, Pyongyang residents still continued to receive food rations.
The 2.5 million residents of the capital, who are often referred to as the "heart of the revolution," enjoy special benefits. According to defectors who used to live in Pyongyang, ID cards showing where they live are the only documents needed to travel around the country. For them, the biggest danger is betraying signs of ideological deviation -- a sin punishable by eviction from the city of privilege.
In contrast, provincial folks require special travel permits to visit Pyongyang. Additionally, they are only permitted to watch state-run Korean Central Television, whereas residents of Pyongyang can view two more channels: Mansudae TV and the [North] Korean Education and Culture Arts Television.
Pyongyang residents stay loyal to the state due to such benefits, an argument supported by the paucity of defectors in South Korea from the capital. According to the Unification Ministry, only two percent of North Korean defectors are from Pyongyang. The residents of the capital account for only 10 percent of the North's 24 million population.
In February of last year, North Korea implemented administrative reforms by shrinking the area of Pyongyang by 40 percent. As a result, the outskirts of the capital south of the Daedong River, which are mainly rice paddies, were ceded to North Hwanghae Province.
With the reforms, the official population of Pyongyang shrank by around 500,000, which meant fewer mouths to feed. One source familiar with North Korean affairs said, "You can say that the residents living on the outskirts of Pyongyang, who were not part of the elite, were removed." Meanwhile, the elite status of those living in the capital was raised even higher.
◆ Income Disparity
Experts say that living conditions worsened outside of Pyongyang. One former state official said, "Focusing limited resources entirely on Pyongyang led to increased shortages in other parts of the country."
"Most of the people shedding tears are residents of Pyongyang," said another defector from Chongjin. "The reason why it is difficult to see scenes of sorrow outside of the capital is because such feelings are a lot less intense there."
Middle class residents of regions outside of Pyongyang became destitute following the failed currency reform around the end of November in 2009. They had made money by selling goods in open-air markets following the collapse of the state food distribution system. But their assets declined in value overnight when the currency was revalued, which effectively lopped off two zeroes from the value of the North Korean won.
In contrast, most of the residents of Pyongyang were reportedly tipped off beforehand about the looming currency reform, giving them time to exchange the North Korean currency into Chinese yuan or U.S. dollars.
After the failed attempt to reform the currency, the gap between the residents of Pyongyang and other parts of the country appears to have widened even more. But it is virtually impossible for people in the country to rebel.
"Regardless of the economic difficulties there, security forces and other agencies that monitor the public are still active across the country," said one government official. "It would be very hard for discontented North Korean to unite and rebel."