Blog - Liberty in North Korea
blog

How North Korean People are Changing North Korea

March 21, 2022

Sometimes this issue seems hopeless. But we believe that all North Koreans can achieve their freedom in our lifetime. Here’s why.

A flowchart showing the various ways that change occurs in North Korea.

For decades, the North Korean people have been deprived of their basic human rights and potential. The regime has maintained control through a system of imposed isolation, relentless indoctrination, and brutal repression, creating one of the most closed societies in the world. The result is an all-encompassing enforced poverty, including material, physiological, social, informational, artistic, and spiritual deprivations.

In 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea concluded: “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

In recent years, the pandemic has triggered another increase in isolation, hardship and repression.

Despite these tremendous challenges, the North Korean people have made significant progress toward their own freedom. In the 1990s, North Korea’s socialist economy collapsed, triggering a devastating famine and leaving the people to fend for themselves. Bottom-up market activity is changing North Korea and forcing the gradual opening up of North Korean society.

> The History of North Korea in under 3 minutes

Marketization and Emerging Entrepreneurs

Once the people realized they could no longer rely on the government, they abandoned their defunct work units and turned to private market activities. From selling home cooked meals to running extensive trade businesses, North Koreans have become incredibly creative and resourceful to survive. The markets central to these activities are known as the “Jangmadang,” and to this day, North Korean refugees regularly report that life would be impossible without them.

> The Jangmadang Generation

A photo of an outdoor market.

The famine forced people at all levels of society to find alternate ways to survive. Many government officials seized opportunities for camouflaged capitalism to enrich themselves personally. Even security officials accommodated the markets, accepting bribes to turn the other way and allow access to the Chinese border for trade. This corrupt state apparatus has further degraded the integrity and power of North Korean leaders.

Foreign Media & Info

The growing market economy has also created opportunities for foreign media and information to proliferate in North Korea.

First, the movement of people has significantly increased since the 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have now been outside the country for legal or illegal work and trade, in addition to refugees who were caught in China and forcibly repatriated. Observations from overseas are commonly shared through word of mouth and quickly spread through communities.

Additionally, new information technologies are increasingly available through the markets, making it easier to share and consume illegal foreign media. USB thumb-drives, SD and MicroSD cards, mobile phones, laptops and small portable media players are often loaded with foreign films, TV shows, and music that offer a glimpse of life outside.

Individual Agency & Independence

Since the collapse of the 1990s, the relationship between the North Korean people and the regime has been fundamentally changed. The people’s increasing economic autonomy has challenged the government’s centralized power and systems. Simultaneously, access to foreign media and awareness of life outside the country has eroded the legitimacy of the regime’s propaganda. The North Korean people have found opportunities to explore their potential, empowered to think and act independently of the regime.

Smiling North Koreans.

North Korean Defectors

As North Koreans gain both physical and psychological independence from the regime, some will risk their lives to escape and experience freedom. Since crossing the heavily fortified demilitarized zone directly to South Korea is nearly impossible, many refugees go north into  China while escaping North Korea.

North Korean defectors who successfully resettle become some of the most effective agents of change on this issue. Many maintain contact with their home communities through broker networks and smuggled Chinese phones. They send money back to their families along with first-hand accounts of the outside world, accelerating both market activity and the flow of information. 

Resettled North Koreans.

From the outside, North Korean refugees have the opportunity to share their stories on the international stage. Their personal accounts challenge the regime’s narrative of an unchanging and monolithic North Korea, instead highlighting the humanity and dynamism of the people. As they explore their potential in the free world, North Korean refugees increase the force of change through both internal and external influence.

Change from the Bottom-Up

While the situation in North Korea is changing, the government’s mastery in maintaining social control should not be underestimated. The regime’s response has ranged from crackdowns to tacit acceptance and reform. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un recognizes the trade-off between change and maintaining control, and has allowed limited marketization while cracking down on information flows.

Kim Jong Un.

Ultimately, however, the sources of change can only be managed, not eliminated. As the North Korean people learn more about their relative poverty and the reasons for it, pressure will build on the government for economic reform. The less the North Korean people fear the outside world, the less effective the government’s threat narrative will be, and the less justified their massive investment into nuclear weapons will seem.

The regime will either need to adapt to change and allow opening of the country, or ultimately face the consequences of increasingly dissatisfied people.

It is important to note that progress in North Korea is a fluctuating process, as it is anywhere else in the world. During the pandemic, there has been increased isolation, retrenchment, and a limited outflow of people. The situation at hand is dire, but we can still be optimistic about long-term outcomes and an overall upward trend towards progress.

Liberty in North Korea

Our staff from North Korea, South Korea, and around the world, with our diverse movement of supporters and volunteers, is committed to bringing freedom forward for all North Korean people.

We’re engaged at multiple touchpoints of change:

  • Helping North Korean refugees reach safety
  • Identifying and empowering North Korean agents of change
  • Mobilizing international support for the North Korean people
  • Working with North Korean defectors to develop content and technologies that increase the people’s access to information


Our theory of change recognizes that change in North Korea has already started, and it is being driven by the people. One day, all North Koreans will gain their freedom and take full authorship over their lives. When that day arrives, we will know that we were a part of helping North Koreans in this incredible story of resilience and human progress against all odds.

Foreign Media in North Korea - How Kpop is Challenging the Regime

April 22, 2022

Movies, TV shows, and music hold power. They’re a way for us to connect through common experiences, reckon with different sides of humanity, and revel in the beauty of being here at all. They transport us to another time and place- perhaps one of our imaginations- and most importantly, allow us to dream and imagine a limitless future.

Popular South Korean drama Crash Landing on You. Photo credit: Netflix and IMDb.


In recent years, South Korean media and entertainment has gained international recognition. People like Hyun Bin and Son Yejin, the stars of popular Korean drama Crash Landing on You, have become household names, while Parasite swept the 2020 Academy Awards and music from K-pop groups like BTS are charting globally.

Meanwhile, just across the border, North Korea remains one of the most closed societies in the world. Yet even in the “hermit kingdom,” foreign media is accelerating empowerment of the people and change within the country!

Forced Isolation and the Regime’s Information Monopoly

The North Korean government has maintained power for decades through a system of imposed isolation, relentless indoctrination, and brutal repression. A complete monopoly on information and ideas within the country has been key- outside media threatens to challenge the legitimacy of their propaganda, and by extension, their control.

The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea reported an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as well as of the rights to freedom of speech, opinion, expression, and association.

North Korea is technologically isolated from the world


The regime employs a range of strategies to enforce information control:

  • Restricting movement across borders and within the country
  • Random house searches
  • Severe punishment, including public executions, to deter foreign media consumption and sharing
  • Sophisticated digital surveillance
  • Jamming phone signals and locating users through signal triangulation
  • Mobile OS file signature system that only permits government-approved apps and files


The Spread of Foreign Media

Despite this isolation and unparalleled internal restrictions, the North Korean people have been quietly changing their country from within, including through foreign media access. Through market activity and the movement of people and goods across the Chinese border, they have forced the gradual opening up of their society. Movies and music are smuggled into the country on USBs, SD and MicroSD cards, and small portable media players, offering illicit access to information from the outside world.

With lights off and windows shuttered, North Koreans will watch foreign media despite the risks. If all else fails, bribes are a way for people to reduce punishment if caught. Most North Korean police and government officials rely on bribes to survive, and some defectors complain that they are actually the biggest consumers of foreign media because they confiscate so much.

A representation of how North Koreans watch illegal foreign media

Information Technology in North Korea

Within North Korea, a broad range of information technologies are available, although they should be registered with authorities. Laptops and computers officially run on a government operating system, Red Star OS, while the North Korean intranet, Kwangmyong, is air-gapped from the internet and heavily surveilled. However, in practice, many North Koreans have non-networked devices used for games, editing software, watching videos, and to copy, delete and transfer media on removable devices.

Mobile phones are also common with approximately 6 million on the North Korean network, meaning roughly 1 in 4 people have one. These North Korean phones generally cannot make international calls and the operating system limits users to approved state media (programs have been developed to bypass this security). On the other hand, smuggled Chinese phones can be used in border regions on the Chinese network. These have been crucial for staying in touch with relatives who have escaped or defected, who often send back money and information from the outside world.

North Korean woman with phone. Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue.

Radios are the only channel of foreign media and news available real-time across the country. While they should officially be registered and fixed to North Korean stations, it is relatively easy to tamper with radio sets to pick up foreign broadcasts. In border regions, some TVs can also pick up live programming from South Korea and China. Traditionally, TVs were connected to DVD players, but newer LCD televisions also have direct USB input ports.

How Foreign Media Changes Perceptions

Among foreign media, entertainment from South Korea is particularly attractive, produced in the same base language by people with the same ancestry. They contain glimpses of rich and free realities just across the border. In comparison, domestic North Korean media seems old-fashioned and disingenuous, designed to reinforce the regime’s ideologies.

As North Koreans learn more about life, freedom and prosperity in the outside world, and their own relative poverty, the regime’s ideology and control are eroded.

North Koreans watching a Korean drama on a laptop

“At first you see the cars, apartment buildings, and markets and you think it must be a movie set. But the more you watch, there’s no way it can be just a set. If you watch one or two [movies] it always raises these doubts, and if you keep watching you know for sure. You realize how well South Koreans and other foreigners live.”

- Danbi, escaped North Korea in 2011


Empowered by foreign media, North Koreans are exploring their creativity and potential through everyday acts of resistance- using South Korean slang, copying fashion styles, and sharing pop culture references. In this culture war, Kim Jong-un has called for crackdowns on "unsavory, individualistic, anti-socialist behavior" among young people to restrict freedom of expression.

Foreign media also facilitates shared acts of resistance. People will swap USB devices with trusted friends and neighbors, increasing confidence in one another through a symmetrical transaction. Some people may also watch and discuss movies and shows together, increasing the media’s subversive influence and creating social networks.



The Regime’s Response

During the pandemic, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of isolation and restrictions, closing off the country more than ever before. To buttress control, Kim Jong Un has simultaneously increased crackdowns and punishments on foreign media consumption. In December 2020, the “anti-reactionary thought law” made watching foreign media punishable by 15 years in a political prison camp.

While the situation is harrowing, the government’s extreme response underscores the power of foreign media. The regime recognizes that social changes driven by North Korean people are a threat to their authority and control in the long term.


Accelerating Foreign Media Access and Change 

Moving forward, increasing access to outside information is one of the most effective ways to help the North Korean people and bring forward change.

Information and technology support for North Korean people has historically been an under-utilized and under-invested strategy. LiNK Labs is our area of work focused on this opportunity- we’re developing technologies, networks, and content to empower North Korean people with access to information and ideas from the outside world.

Your generous donation will rescue and support North Korean refugees
Donate Now
Learn more about the North Korean people
Awesome! You're subscribed!
Oh no! Looks like something went wrong.
Check these out!
Stand with the north korean people

Join Liberty and give monthly in support of the North Korean people

The logo for Refinery29A logo for CNNThe logo for Fox NewsThe logo for Time MagazineThe Logo for the Washington PostThe logo for National Public Radio