SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears more approachable than his late father, but despite a new emphasis on economic improvement, there are few signs of real reform under way in the totalitarian state, a pair of senior defectors working for South Korea's most secretive think tank said Tuesday.
Former North Korean diplomat Goh Young-hwan said that Mr. Kim's promise to improve the economy "has raised expectations of a better future," but a new policy being implemented on North Korea's porous border with China bodes ill for would-be defectors.
"In the past, if North Koreans wanted to cross the river, they gave money to guards," Mr. Goh said, noting that the number of defectors has fallen since Mr. Kim came to power in January. "Now the regime says to the guards, 'Take the money. We will not punish you, but get [the defectors] and we will give you credit.'"
He also noted that border guard units frequently are rotated from place to place so that they do not build relations with locals.
Mr. Goh and a colleague, a former high-level official who declined to give his name, briefed reporters Tuesday at South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) discrete complex, which lies off an unmarked road in rolling woodland south of Seoul. The two men are analysts for the Institute for National Security and Strategy, an NIS affiliate.
Mr. Goh's colleague dismissed Mr. Kim's statements and policies that prioritize the economy, calling such pronouncements deceptive.
He said that the regime has asked farmers to grow marketable crops, but noted that the government has surveyed all of the land. When harvest time comes, the regime will take 70 percent of it in a "mandatory seizure," he said.
In addition, reports about North Korean manufacturers being granted autonomy to produce goods are misleading, he said.
"The first- and second-tier companies produce weapons and key industrial equipment, and the government still orders these factories what to produce," the former official said, adding that only bottom-tier factories have autonomy. "Right now, they are not making any products at all as they have no money, so they are being told to produce anything."
He also noted that Mr. Kim appears to be trying to take control of various foreign currency-earning organizations, bureaus and schemes controlled by the Communist Party and army, both of which have spawned personal corruption.
Since the 1990s, high-level officials with links to economic bureaus routinely have hoarded foreign currency, the analyst said. "Party officials have been keeping massive sums of dollars close to hand — $500,000 to $1 million in their homes," he said.