Tuesday, April 22, 2014

North Korea: Accelerating Change from the Bottom-up

North Korea is often seen from the outside as a static and hopeless issue, with the North Korean people portrayed as mindless robots, single-mindedly following the wishes of the regime leadership. However, the reality of North Korean society and the lives of the North Korean people is increasingly diverging from this outdated stereotype. Drawing on insights from recent defectors, this talk will discuss the significance of several irreversible grassroots changes that have emerged in North Korean society, what this may mean for the future of the country, and how progress can be brought forward in North Korea.

In the presentation Sokeel Park (biographical info at the end) looks at six clear long-term irreversible reasons that will continue to provoke change in the North Korean society.

5 reasons that change did not or could not happen previously in North Korea.
Change does not necessarily happen with the government. The government can make rulings, but it is the people that make up a nation, embody the nation, shape it, and with their needs and desires they determine where the nation will ultimately go, and North Korea is like other nations. It has been greatly repressed by its government, but the people still have needs and desires and as they are more and more able to pursue and meet those desires, the shape of the nation will change ... as it is rapidly changing now. Following are six reasons why transformation in North Korea is inevitable within our lifetime.

Reason 1: Bottom-up marketing. North Korea with its push to feed the military, and the people of North Korea desperate to feed themselves shaped the nation through need. The people had the need to find ways of feeding themselves and a market society started, and as it grew and grew the North Korean government lost control of the market economy. With means to feed themselves and means to make a little money, North Koreans desires expanded beyond the essentials for maintaining life.

Reason 2: The explosion of corruption. With people having a little money and ways of making an alternative living, the military in their authoritative positions pursue a means of making money too, via huge bribes, kickbacks and gross economic suppression. It seems the "effectiveness" of the North Korean society is based on these under-the-table economies.


Not being required to go to work for a month – W50,000 - W60,000 NK won ($7)
Travel permit w/in the country           w/in the province (less than $1)
                                                            toward the border ($8)
                                                            to diff province (($7)
                                                            to Pyongyang ($16)
Using an illegal Chinese phone (about $500)
Phone confiscated by official (also paid about $300) but bought another phone from same official
Bribe for not reporting watching a SK drama (about $300 - depends how many police catch you)

Reason 3: Information technologies. The NK government has tried to make a closed media market. This however has rapidly changed in the last few years ... mainly due to the number of NKs who have directly experienced the Chinese market.

About 53,000 NKs are working in the SK businesses in Gaesong city.
NK media is extremely controlled and extremely boring! Therefore, getting media and other technology via China are of great interest.
            DVD player ($120)
            DVD ($.80-$1.50) – fairly openly sold in the market, euphemistically asked for in the market by query-ing, “Do you have something fun?”
One well-connected guy said it takes about a week for a movie to get inside NK from the time it hits the theater.
            4GB multi-media stick ($6.50)
            laptops, second-hand ($150-$900 — Samsung is the most popular)
            mobile phone ($160-$240)
DVD player and mobile phones are fashion symbols as well as status symbols.
Watching foreign media is a kind of low-level defiance … but if you look at what the people are wearing, what’s being sold in the markets, and hairstyles, there is obvious visual evidence of “defiance”.

It is common knowledge that China is surpassing NK. This is greatly evidenced by the Chinese mobile phone economy in NK, China keeping their lights on all night, and markets being loaded with a wide variety of goods, many of which are foreign.

Reason 4: The increasing number of defectors. NK defectors have been leaving the last 15 years. They initially left for economic reasons but now it's for political reasons and to pursue more or new opportunities.

Reason 5: Jangmadang (Market) Generation. Jangmadang is the NK word for the SK 시장 (market). This generation (roughly those born after the 1980s) doesn't remember the government rice and food contributions but only when the NKs were self-supporting.  And therefore this younger generation has no reason to feel dependent or reliant on the government, a government which has contributed nothing for them. Attitudes, desires, behaviors are very different from their parents'. This demographic is at present 18-35, but is growing and the NK government has no way of counteracting this viral spread of market goods, info and links to the global market.

Reason 6: Emergence of human networks. Networks or bonds are forming between people. As the government isn't supporting the people, the people are making links to give, receive, share, borrow info, goods, whatever. Basically it is shared illegal behavior that is bonding the people. Non-compliance and disobedience are creating an acceleration for change.

Two phenomena, however, are slowing down this rapid development within the NK society. The first is brutally effective suppression. NK is still a very politically oppressive society and is very intolerant of political dissent. The second reason is the ruling elite is cohesive and conservative for change. The ruling elite would inevitably lose their "jobs" if the people were allowed to vote or express their opinions. The elite would then lose their possessions, position, status, and would probably be expelled from the country or even lose their lives. Therefore, they know they must continue their hard political stance of top-down control and suppression of the people.

It is very hard to move a political economy if it is stationery, but since NK is moving from a bottom-up dynamism, it can therefore be supported by the international community.

A lot of money ($10-15 million) goes to security in the form of bribes in NK, but this money is spent as seed money and expands the market activities as well as further boosting the market economies which further speed social change.

Since 2012 when Kim ChongUn, NK leader, took over, the border crackdowns have vastly increased. But realistically, the NK government is only slowing down the influx of black-market goods and increasing defectors.

It seems the international community has given up on there being change in NK; however, that is failing to recognize that while the political front seems inflexible and summarily denies political or economic change, the NK people themselves are where the society is dynamic. Change is occurring from the bottom-up and is happening on such a huge scope that continuous change in only inevitable and sustainable.


Sokeel Park is the Director of Research and Strategy for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). Based in Seoul, he regularly interview North Korean defectors and meets with practitioners working on the issue. He leads the development of LiNK's long-term strategies, pursuing opportunities to empower the North Korean people. Sokeel also engages with the international media to reframe North Korea by introducing more focus on the North Korean people and society, and has been cited by the Economist, Financial Times, BBC, Washington Post, CNN, Al Jazeera, KBS, El Mundo and the Guardian. Before joint LiNK he worked at the United Nations, a diplomatic consultancy, and the South Korean government.

No comments:

Post a Comment