Want to Know What North Koreans Think About Kim Jong Un?

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Autocratic regimes, by their nature, tend to view the opinions of their populations as a threat to be stifled. Over the years, leaders from Syria to North Korea have sharpened their tools of repression to squelch any sign of public dissatisfaction with their rule and keep their population's views a mystery to outside observers. As a result, information about how these citizens view their government has long existed in a vacuum -- at the mercy of hearsay and conjecture. But a small cadre of pollsters is using new technologies and practices to circumvent government restrictions and give a voice to the silenced. We like to call them guerrilla pollsters.

We've been intimately involved in the effort to conduct public-opinion surveys in countries controlled by authoritarian regimes. In January, we completed the analysis of an in-person survey of 1,046 adults living in Syria. The poll, conducted by the Democracy Council, a California-based NGO, was the first face-to-face survey collected by an unsanctioned organization on the ground in Syria.

Democracy Council had to overcome several hurdles to pull off the survey. First, it had to find 60 qualified interviewers in a country where such data collection is illegal and then train them from scratch. The interviewers were recruited by word of mouth, and each was put through an extensive background check to make sure that he or she had no association with the Syrian government. They were also screened for educational requirements and adequate written and verbal communication skills.

New technology greatly assisted in the training process. Democracy Council prepared its field staff using Skype, the well-known Internet calling service, which now allows videoconferencing. Skype provided several advantages: The calls are encrypted, so any messages intercepted by Syrian security services would be unintelligible, and videoconferencing avoided the need for any in-person gathering, which might have attracted the attention of the authorities. This method also kept the interviewers' identities a mystery to each other. Even if a government agent managed to pass the extensive background check, at least he or she wouldn't know the identities of the other fieldworkers.

Interviewers then sought out potential subjects with whom to conduct an in-person interview that lasted approximately 30 minutes. The fieldworkers were guided by Syrian statisticians and demographers to ensure that the data collected were representative of the Syrian population. Because security risks made it impossible to gather a completely representative sample, the research team at Pepperdine University that prepared the independent survey report weighted the survey data to ensure that the final results were nationally representative based on age, sex, location, religion, and education.  

The survey findings reflected poorly on the Syrian government and quickly spread through the media. The poll found that a majority of Syrians believe that their political and economic situation is poor and worse than it was five years ago. They consider the government to be corrupt and have little faith in its ability to confront the country's problems. A substantial majority believes the state of emergency, which has been in place since 1963 and used to justify violations of civil liberties, should be lifted, and a majority reported that it would leave Syria if it had the opportunity to do so.  

But more important than the findings is that the data exists at all. A public-opinion poll was successfully conducted within a closed regime, and without its consent. And as the critical account of the Syrian government's performance showed, Syrians weren't reluctant to speak their minds. Given the high risks to both the data collectors and the survey respondents, it is stunning just how willing these citizens were to talk.

Due to the unique circumstances under which the survey was conducted, it did face some hurdles that required us to make some adjustments to achieve a representative sample of the population. Among survey respondents, for example, men outnumbered women 2 to 1. We corrected for this disparity by giving more weight to women's responses in the final results. It is unclear whether the relative reluctance of women to participate in the survey was the result of their lesser interest in politics -- men reported a higher consumption of political news -- or whether they were more fearful of retribution. This does raise a concern that survey results might be skewed to those who are more politically minded.

Nevertheless, we are confident that the methods pioneered with this survey provide a broadly representative portrayal of Syrian public opinion and that they can be duplicated in other repressive regimes. For example, foreign observers have had a hard enough time deciphering high-level political developments in North Korea, where leader Kim Jong Il has begun transferring power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un -- let alone parsing what the North Korean people think about this succession plan.

But an increasing number of innovators are working to change that. Kim Eun Ho is a former police officer from North Korea who defected to the South in 2008. Since then, he has worked as a reporter for Seoul-based Free North Korea Radio. With the aid of a friend and a smuggled cell phone, he is circumventing North Korea's leadership to solicit opinions from its citizens.

Kim conducts a nightly public-opinion poll of North Korean residents, the first poll of its kind and illegal in North Korea. Here's how it works: Kim calls his friend in North Korea on a smuggled cell phone. The friend then uses a North Korean land line to call a subject and presses the cell phone against the handset of the landline phone, allowing Kim to conduct a brief interview.

If the interviewee were discovered by the police, they would almost certainly be punished -- perhaps severely. To circumvent the North Korean police, Kim has tailored his questions so that they take about 90 seconds to answer. He tapped phones himself as a North Korean police officer, and he estimates that it takes about two to three minutes for the police to trace a call.

The phone calls reveal a great dissatisfaction with the hereditary succession and question whether Kim Jong Un is qualified to lead. Kim Eun Ho has not yet published his results, but in an interview with the Washington Post, he noted that every person he has spoken with expressed reservations about Kim Jong Un taking over.

Kim's guerrilla polling outfit is unlikely to produce data that are as accurate, say, as an aboveboard survey conducted by a reputable polling agency in the United States. He is limited to mainly one province of North Korea, and his results may be biased toward those more critical of the regime. However, it does provide a picture of North Korean public opinion where none existed before. With just a smuggled cell phone and a 90-second questionnaire, Kim has created a remarkable innovation that could revolutionize data collection within this notoriously secretive regime.

The original guerrilla pollsters, such the Democracy Council with its Syria poll, have benefited from an enormous advantage: the element of surprise. By now, however, Syria's security apparatus is well aware of the existence of the opinion poll and the methods used to collect its data. The findings were sufficiently embarrassing to the regime that it will have a strong incentive to quash any future attempts to conduct a similar survey. The challenge for guerrilla pollsters is to always stay one step ahead.

Rapidly evolving communications tools will be hugely helpful. The next generation of guerrilla pollsters will have new ways to use portable satellite phones and modems to circumvent the government-monitored mobile systems and Internet service providers. Although many repressive governments have claimed to be able to monitor all cyberactivities, creative use of proxy servers can thwart these regimes' attempts to do so.

Improvements in the speed of satellite Internet and miniaturization of technology make getting information out of these countries much easier. In the past, uploading information via satellite Internet was nearly impossible due its slow speed and the difficulty in making a connection between a modem and its dedicated satellite. Improvements in technology have now largely resolved these problems, and, as an added advantage, satellite Internet is useful and very cost-effective for reaching rural areas.

Although guerrilla polling is still in its infancy, it holds the potential to provide valuable new insights into previously closed societies. There is now great interest in expanding the scope of guerrilla polling to places like Cuba or Iran. And as pollsters fine-tune their methods and harness more sophisticated technology, these polls will offer an increasingly accurate portrait of public opinion in authoritarian regimes. The information vacuum is over.



Is This Really the End for Ahmadinejad?

Beset by sanctions and isolated internationally, Iran decides to test its system of checks and balances.

Casual Iran observers tend to portray the country's most prominent political division as that between fundamentalist hard-liners and secular moderates. In reality, however, the struggle for Iran's future is a three-way fight waged by the different branches of conservatives that control the parliament, the presidency, and the theocracy. The Green Movement may have stalled, but the parliamentary opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has only grown stronger and more assertive over the past year -- culminating in a recent push to charge the president with abuses of power warranting impeachment. Those efforts are coming to a halt under orders from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who fears that the parliament's attempt to assert itself against the president will also be at the expense of his own power base, the country's conservative mullahs.

In fact, this isn't the first round of infighting among Iran's leaders. In July 2009, legislators warned Ahmadinejad that they would seek to oust him as the chief executive if he continued acting in an autocratic manner. Ahmadinejad responded by claiming the executive branch is the most important one of the government.

Ahmadinejad has also clashed with parliamentarians over his prerogative to influence the activities of the Central Bank. As financial hardships mount on common Iranians, in part due to mismanagement and in part from international sanctions, their elected representatives are blaming the president and his bureaucrats for the economy's woes.

It's a naked power struggle that has cloaked itself in ideology. Ahmadinejad and his cohorts in the executive branch of Iran's government increasingly reference secular Iranian nationalism. They recently celebrated an exhibition honoring Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire over 2,500 years ago; they have also been known to castigate influential mullahs for diminishing Iran's greatness, going so far as to encourage the separation of religion from the government. Meanwhile parliament speaker Ali Larijani and his legislative supporters present themselves as adherents to the fundamentalist traditions of Shiite Islam and as true believers in the velayat-e faqih, Iran's system of governance by Muslim jurists.

But at its root, the infighting is motivated by differences over pragmatic political strategy. At a time of economic stagnation and international isolation, Iran's power players are all competing to put their stamp on national crisis management.

Ahmadinejad has generally held the best cards in this high-stakes game. The president, together with has chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have built up a formidable power base within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij paramilitary, and the civilian bureaucracy, with which they have deep links through service, appointees, and millions of dollars in economic patronage. The power-broking clerics, including Khamenei and the hard-line ayatollahs on the Guardian Council -- the panel of Shiite scholars who vet all electoral candidates and legislation for adherence to the principles of the Islamic Revolution -- now need Ahmadinejad's support more than he needs theirs. Those mullahs handpicked Ahmadinejad to become president in 2005, re-endorsed him as "God's miracle" during the hotly contested June 2009 presidential elections, and so have associated their own legitimacy with his continued success. The president is also emboldened by the knowledge that this will be his last term, as Iran's Constitution allows only two consecutive presidential terms. Ahmadinejad no longer has to keep an eye on the opinion polls.

Khamenei, whose main concerns are to safeguard Iran's novel system of velayat-e faqih and his own role as its head, likely views both the president and parliament with suspicion. He knows that Ahmadinejad is cultivating support, on the basis of secular nationalism, from among the materialistic military and civil services. On the other hand, Khamenei knows that Larijani -- whose brother heads the judicial branch of Iran's government and whose family is of high ecclesiastic descent -- has enough clout among religious conservatives to make a seductive case for vesting popular sovereignty in the parliament rather than in the clerical hierarchy or the presidency.

All this is why too much shouldn't be read into Khamenei's support for the president in the face of impeachment -- this is a tactical, not a permanent, alliance. If the president continues to undermine velayat-e faqih, the supreme leader won't hesitate to back Ahmadinejad's rivals. And there are even more basic reasons for Khamenei to avoid a showdown with the president. Both the parliament and the supreme leader may lack the means to enforce Ahmadinejad's impeachment. When President Abolhassan Bani Sadr was impeached in 1981, it was only the authority of the IRGC that made his ouster possible. Now, however, the IRGC and its Basij paramilitary are divided in their loyalties between the supreme leader and the president. It would be risky to assume they would side with the mullahs. In fact, Khamenei's personal authority has been so eroded since the public protests of late 2009, as evidenced by other prominent ayatollahs openly challenging both his qualifications to hold the position of supreme leader and his insistence that religion should play a central role in politics, that it's not entirely clear whether the parliament will actually acquiesce to his calls for a show of political and ideological unity. Khamenei's best hope may be that the struggle between the parliament and president will critically weaken both.

These intraregime clashes have serious foreign-policy ramifications. Ahmadinejad's attempt to strike up a nuclear deal with the West failed in 2009 when the ayatollahs sided with naysayers in the parliament. Once again, and this time under much greater economic strain, Iran's government has another chance of negotiating accommodations that would mitigate and perhaps even lift sanctions. But Iran's ruling factions may again prove unable to unite behind a deal that will benefit their country. Parliamentarians and mullahs may balk at enabling a triumph for Ahmadinejad and his allies.

Ordinary Iranians have been the inadvertent beneficiaries of all this political gridlock. Ahmadinejad has used social liberalization as a way to shore up his support over the past year -- by encouraging women's involvement in politics, demanding that youth be free to date and wear clothing of their choice, and similar actions, much to the chagrin of theocrats and parliamentarians. The public has enjoyed greater personal freedoms as a result. Of course, that may only be a temporary reprieve. Domestic unrest over the economy is growing. Whatever their differences, it's easy to imagine Iran's warring factions agreeing to put them aside and focus on the real long-term threat to their power: the Iranian people themselves.