Hannah Song – North Korea’s Rising Civil Society


The notion that a government today can hold back change and deny human potential in order to protect their power is obsolete. In recent years, and throughout history, we’ve seen some governments that have been able to manage change, and others that have not, and have continued to deny the basic dignity of their people, and they have eventually been forced to change. And in many places where change seemed improbable, it very quickly shifted to becoming inevitable- because of the collective power of the people. North Korea, however, is a country where change seems impossible. When we think of North Korea we think of the high politics. Mysterious dictators and nuclear weapons, security threats and provocations.   This is where some of the biggest and most powerful countries come head to head – all with strong interests and competing priorities. And in the middle is North Korea, the prototypical rogue state that has shown itself to be impervious to external pressure. There have been no real solutions, but rather an ongoing cycle between limited provocations and limited negotiations.   It’s the one place where the Cold War stalemate never ended. When we look at North Korea from the level of the high-politics, it’s the same story over and over again and the situation seems impossible.   Over the past 60 years, the North Korean government has created a ruthlessly efficient system of political control, ultimately to ensure its own survival.   It’s one of the most repressive and closed off countries with zero-tolerance towards any form of political dissent.   This is enforced by a collective punishment system where 3 generations of a person’s family are put into a political prison camp for the infraction of a single person.   The result is that there is not a single known human rights advocate or activist inside the country. There is no North Korean Aung San Suu Kyi or Liu Xiaobo.   However, despite this, if we look at the lives of the ordinary North Korean people, change is happening at the grassroots level, and THIS is what gives us hope. In fact, from North Korean refugees that our organization has helped we constantly hear about a remarkable amount of change that has been happening in North Korean society over the last 12-15 years. These grassroots changes were triggered by the collapse of the state-socialist economy in the 1990s, which led to a famine that killed up to 1 million North Koreans. Out of that tragedy emerged the survival mechanism of grassroots marketization, and it was through these markets that people began providing themselves and others with the food and goods that the government could not provide. Today, these markets have become a fundamental part of life for the North Korean people and are gradually transforming North Korean society from
below, and creating spaces outside of the regime’s complete control. And we believe that the quiet growth of these social change phenomena will eventually lead to a transformation of North Korea. In fact, we’ve identified 6 reasons why we believe that the North Korean people WILL achieve their liberty in our lifetime.   First, if we look at the long-term picture, there’s a simple truth that North Korea’s current system is not creating any economic development. In contrast, over the last 50 years, South Korea has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to today being on par with an average EU nation. The difference between North and South Korea’s economies is already the biggest of any two neighbouring countries in the world today. As little as 30 years ago China was poorer than North Korea; today North Koreans look across the river at China and are amazed at the bright lights and development they see there. This is the result of the North Korean regime’s absolute prioritization of political control.   Their obsessive attempts to micromanage society has stifled the people’s potential, effectively enforcing poverty. But as the rest of the region races ahead, the regime’s strategy of trying to deny change becomes increasingly untenable, especially as this divergence becomes increasingly obvious to the North Korean people. This leads to the 2nd factor- The regime has traditionally put massive effort into restricting and isolating its people from the outside world so they could determine the narrative that the North Korean people would believe through extreme indoctrination. The state attempts to control behavior by maintaining a monopoly as the only source of information and ideas inside the country, so there is no internet except for a select group of officials inside the country, and every TV station and newspaper merely serves as a mouthpiece for the regime.   But this information blockade is crumbling, and more and more refugees tell us about watching South Korean dramas and Hollywood films on DVDs and USBs that are being illegally smuggled into the country. And some of them are even making direct contact with relatives in South Korea through illegal Chinese mobile phones that are being smuggled in and used from the border regions. Despite the regime’s best efforts these information flows will only continue to grow, and as they do so the regime’s narrative about their country and the outside world will become increasingly hollow, and powerless. A third crucial but little-known reason for the regime’s decreasing power over grassroots society is the explosion of corruption since the economic collapse of the 1990s. The regime is essentially broke and cannot provide a budget to most government agencies, and cannot afford to give proper wages to officials. With the emergence of market activities and new routes to private wealth, this makes corruption inevitable. North Koreans consistently tell us that to get ahead or even just survive in North Korea you have to break the regime’s rules, and that money enables all of those rules to be broken. Corruption is therefore steadily eroding the regime’s control and authority over society. Fourth, there are the tens of thousands of North Koreans that have illegally escaped and have resettled in countries like South Korea, the US, and in Europe, and thousands more continue to escape every year. These defectors are playing a crucial role in accelerating change by serving as a bridge back into North Korea. It’s estimated that 50% of defectors that have made it to South Korea are in touch with their families still inside the country and they do that through those illegal Chinese mobile phones.   This provides a channel for information from the outside world to get into the country, which is then spread around by word of mouth.   And more importantly, these defectors are also sending remittances back into the country. $10-15 million dollars is being sent each year, through illicit channels and broker networks. This money enables family members to feed them themselves, protect their families, bribe local officials, and even invest in entrepreneurial market activities. This bridge role that defectors are playing is having the effect of speeding up the erosion of regime power, and increasing the bottom-up pressures for change.   Fifth, there is a quiet demographic revolution happening in North Korea. North Koreans born in the 1980s and 90s never knew the days under Kim Il-sung when the regime was actually able to provide for the people and the people had no reason to doubt the state ideology. Many of the refugees we work with are part of this new so-called “Jangmadang” or market generation, and it’s very apparent that they have a different psychological relationship with the state and regime leadership. They don’t care much about the Japanese colonization or the Korean War, and socialist ideology is increasingly irrelevant to them. They grew up in an era of marketization and self-interest, where the regime seemed more like an obstruction. Their natural youthful curiosity and willingness to take risks also coincided with unprecedented access to illegal foreign media that hooked many of them on fascinating glimpses of alternative realities and possibilities. The regime’s old methods of control through indoctrination and the micro-management of society is seemingly counterproductive for some of these young North Koreans who are ahead of the curve.   And it’s only a matter of time before this generation makes up the majority of society.     Lastly, a result of many of these changes is that the North Korean people are more connected to each other than ever before, and they depend on each other more than they depend on the state. This is significant because historically, the regime has relied on the isolation, atomization, and disempowerment of the North Korean people, instilling a culture of fear and distrust among the people. As these social changes strengthen the bonds between the people, we’ve even heard cases where those individuals who are meant to facilitate government crackdowns are instead helping to hide their neighbors illegal radios in order to protect them. The more mutual trust and dependence there is, the more people are likely to engage in shared illegal behaviors like watching foreign media, and even criticizing the regime to each other – another new trend reported to us by refugees. Collective empowerment becomes possible when these North Korean people feel more loyalty to each other than to the state and when they are more connected to each other, and the bottom-up pressure for change will become a force to be reckoned with. The result of these grassroots change phenomena is that the people are breaking away from the state – both physically and psychologically. The people used to look to the regime for everything. They looked to the regime for food; now they get it from the markets.   State media was previously the only source and supplier of ideas and narrative, but this is now being broken down and replaced by new sources of information.    The people previously felt they owed their loyalty to the party and the regime leadership, but now they are steadily realizing they can only depend on themselves and their fellow citizens. BUT- this is still North Korea. The most repressive country in the world. We don’t expect North Korea to go through a radical change this year or next year. It is impossible to predict when and how North Korea will change. Perhaps the regime will see change and will proactively adapt and reform.   Or perhaps it may be that they will be forced to change.   What we can be sure of though, is that these trends are here for the long-term. They cannot be stopped. And they are irreversible. Our opportunity is to believe in the North Korean people, and to pursue ways in which we can help them to accelerate change from the bottom-up.   For example, we can empower them through increasing the spread of new ideas and technologies, and even provide assistance to refugees so they can fulfill their potential as change agents. And if we can do that, then we will see that radical change, even in a country like North Korea, is not impossible.   It will be inevitable. Thank you.

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