In May, LiNK’s research and strategy analyst Sokeel Park had the opportunity to share his thoughts on “How to solve a problem like North Korea” from the TED stage in Seoul.
TED’s Talent Search page for this talk is here. Feel free to click through to vote and comment on this and other talks! We will also be posting our friend Hyeonseo’s compelling talk in the next few days, so make sure you check that out as well.
In case you cannot understand Sokeel’s awesome accent, or you would just like to be able to read the script, we have copied it below for you.
Note: Due to time constraints and some ad libbing (AKA forgetting of lines), this version is slightly different to the one delivered from the TED stage.
HOW TO SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE NORTH KOREA
I’m going to talk about how to solve a problem like North Korea.
Policymakers often describe North Korea in this way as “the land of no good options”. It’s also been referred to as “the impossible state”.
When we look at the bigger picture, the regional context, it’s easy to see why. Basically this is is a whole mess of powers with different interests and competing strategies, and in the middle of it, you have one so called “rogue nation” that has proven itself to be incredibly impervious to external pressure.
So, how do we solve a problem like this?
I don’t know. If there was an easy way to solve this, someone would probably thought of it by now and bagged themselves a Nobel peace prize while they were at it. This is what the governments and the international media has focused on for decades. This situation is basically a Cold War style, locked stalemate. And so what we see is exactly what we would expect to see – tension, and a cycle between provocations and negotiations. There is no dynamism in this picture, no change, and there’s no sustainable progress to be made. No wonder people call it the land of no good options.
But I did say that we were going to talk about how to solve a problem like North Korea.
So to do that we need to look at the problem in a different way. We need to look not at the big picture level of high politics, we need to look at the ground level of this problem. That’s the perspective of the North Korean people. The North Korean people are relatively ignored in this whole picture, but they face some almighty challenges as well. Since the fundamental problem here is the massive disempowerment of the North Korean people, the solution must address that by empowering the North Korean people.
At this point I’d like to tell you about one of my North Korean friends. This is Shin Donghyuk. He was born in a political prison camp in 1982. And he was supposed to live there for his whole life, because his “blood was guilty”.
When he was 21 years old, a new prisoner arrived and Shin was tasked with showing him the ropes. This prisoner happened to have been a member of the ruling elite who had lived a relatively good life in Pyongyang. And he told Shin about the outside world. So for the first time Shin learned even the most basic things about the outside world, simple things like what it’s like to eat meat. And he says that that drove him crazy, he wanted to escape and experience those things for himself so badly. So one day, when he was working near the boundary of the camp, he seized his chance and escaped.
For Shin it was the new information that he learned about the outside world, the knowledge of an alternative better life that drove him to not accept his reality, but to change it.
And what was true at the micro level for Shin is also true at the macro level for the North Korean people.
Thankfully, at this level, over the last 15 years, there has been surprising dynamism and significant grassroots change in the country, and the North Korean people are in fact already gradually becoming empowered through these changes.
Whereas before the 1990s the North Korean state controlled and was the source of all these things.
Since the collapse of the state controlled economy in the 1990s, and grassroots marketization, the market been consuming these roles from the state.
So the market now, not the state, is the primary source of food for ordinary North Koreans. It is also the main source of wealth and status, not the state. Even the state’s ability to repress society through its control over law and the judiciary is being eaten away by corruption which has become rampant inside the country.
And what is perhaps most interesting here is that the markets are becoming an increasingly important source of information and technology to the people, in a way which is very hard for the state to control.
This is particularly important in North Korea because the North Korean government, perhaps more than any other authoritarian regime in history, has put massive efforts into maintaining a complete monopoly as the single source of information and ideas inside the country. And so a breakdown of that monopoly is a hugely significant development.
We’ve seen over the past year the scale of change that is possible when the people are empowered through the spread of new ideas and flows of information that are made possible through new technologies.
It is important to note that collapse is not the only possible pathway for change, because when governments feel the people becoming empowered and they feel that pressure building up from below, they can also decide to proactively reform and change their ways. But it is clear from history that governments that attempt to deny people their basic human dignities can no longer do so when the people are sufficiently empowered. Faced with empowered people, governments have a choice. Either to change their ways, or top be changed out.
Let’s come back to North Korea. It’s still the most closed off country in the world and the regime denies its people any access to the internet. So the people lack some of these tools that were seen as crucial in facilitating people power in the Middle East.
But North Korea does have these technologies [see slide], and the North Korean people are already using them to break through the regime’s information blockade and to access and share new ideas from the outside world in a way that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.
This is happening in all sorts of ways. People are watching South Korean dramas and Hollywood films on smuggled DVDs. And North Korean refugees tell me that these are much more interesting than North Korean state television. There’s only so many reports of Kim Jong-un visiting a factory or military base that one person can take. North Korean fishermen are tuning in to South Korean radio stations to listen to the weather forecasts because it’s more reliable. North Koreans are setting up very important lines of communication with the outside world through illegal Chinese cell phones in the border regions. And people are even reading Wikipedia pages that have been downloaded onto USB drives and smuggled across the border.
As new ideas and information gets into North Korea, and as the people are now beginning to share and discuss these ideas, they are becoming increasingly empowered and the bonds between the people are strengthening, and this is crucial for long-term change in North Korea and in fact it is already changing North Korean society from the bottom up.
Change in North Korea will come from within, and what we have to do from the outside is feed and accelerate those changes that are already happening. And one of the most powerful ways of doing that is by providing new sources of foreign media and objective information, and the new technologies that can facilitate their spread.
We don’t expect radical change any time soon. But this is not the hopeless situation that it’s often portrayed as. If we can focus on the people and help empower them, including through the spread of new ideas and new technologies, the status quo will become increasingly untenable.
Then, change in North Korea will not be impossible. It will be inevitable.