How North Korean People are Changing North Korea
Sometimes this issue seems hopeless. But we believe that all North Koreans can achieve their freedom in our lifetime. Here’s why.
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
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.
> How Kpop is Challenging the Regime
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.
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.
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.
> How A North Korean Defector Sends Money Back Home
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.
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.
North Korean Refugee Rescues: An Update from Our Field Manager
Over the past few years, the impact of COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the day-to-day lives of North Korean people. Pandemic-related border lockdowns, increased surveillance, and unprecedented restrictions made it impossible for North Koreans to escape and reach freedom.
After a painstakingly long pause on rescues, at the end of 2022 we were finally able to start moving people safely again. Our field team has worked tirelessly to establish new, viable routes and adapt to circumstances on the ground. Navigating unprecedented restrictions and developing new routes has led to significantly higher and extremely volatile rescue costs, but our commitment is stronger than ever to help North Korean refugees reach freedom.
We recently sat down with our field manager, Jennifer* to hear directly about the current needs, challenges, and potential of this new era of rescues.
Could you give us a general overview of the situation in China?
So much has changed since the start of the pandemic. Activists have been kicked out of the country; brokers no longer want to do this work because of the increased surveillance and restrictions. The number of underground rescue networks has shrunk significantly. Navigating these challenges puts us at higher risk, which means that we have to use more resources, including people on the ground, to guarantee that our groups move safely. Because of the increased costs, we soon might have to ask people to wait to be rescued and it’s agonizing, especially because timing is critical in the underground railroad. There are very few moments when everything aligns and it is safe to travel, but because we don’t have funds, North Korean refugees lose those rare, precious opportunities. The North Koreans I’ve been in communication with are living in constant fear because of the increased use of security technology by the state, such as facial recognition with AI. On top of that, domestic violence continues to be a serious issue for many North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married in China.
Is there a risk of being sent back to North Korea right now?
Refugees who are caught in China are forcibly sent back to North Korea where they are severely punished. However, because of the pandemic, North Korea sealed its borders in January 2020 and has yet to reopen them. This means that repatriation hasn’t been possible yet, but we are hearing rumors that North Korea will start receiving people again soon.
Many people who have tried to escape were arrested and we’ve heard that currently, there are a large number of North Korean refugees in Chinese prisons.
What kind of situations are people escaping from in China?
It’s mostly North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married to Chinese men. Some have been living in China for several years and the pandemic left them stranded with no way to escape. We had heard that some of these women were facing even worse treatment from their Chinese husbands than before. The people who arrived in China in 2019 or early 2020 only had a very short period of time to learn the language, culture, and to adjust before having to quarantine. It has been much more difficult for these people to try to escape from China.
More recently, some of the refugees we’re in communication with have serious health issues. But they can’t go to the hospital because they’re not Chinese citizens and would risk being arrested and sent back to North Korea. They are hoping to make it to South Korea to get the healthcare they need.
And what are some of the challenges that North Koreans in China face day-to-day?
They can’t go outside. There was already a lack of freedom to travel and move around freely before the pandemic, but it has only gotten worse since then. When I speak with them, it feels like they’re losing hope. The reality of how difficult and expensive the journey has become is discouraging, especially because they hear about people who attempted the journey and were caught and arrested. So for people who were connected with us recently, many were shocked to hear about our work. They said it was almost surreal because they didn’t think it was possible to get to freedom at this time.
What motivated these people to leave North Korea in the first place?
It’s different depending on the person. There are usually personal circumstances that lead them to look for better opportunities in China or South Korea. Many people are tricked into human trafficking. Some women choose to live with a Chinese husband of their own will. They believe it’s better to live in China in this way rather than live in North Korea.
What have been the biggest challenges for you?
While I'm very grateful that we've been able to resume rescues, it's a shame that we can only move a limited number of people due to increased costs and heightened security. I stay in close contact with refugees in China who are hoping to reach freedom, and some are in urgent situations. A woman who was 4 months pregnant had to make the journey before her belly got too big. Some refugees have health conditions that need immediate treatment, but they’re unable to go to the hospital. My hope is that we can rescue as many people as possible so they can experience freedom and live the full lives that they deserve.
Since restarting rescues last December, the significant increase in costs have depleted our rescue and resettlement funds, leaving many North Korean refugees waiting, once again, for an opportunity to escape. Your support is needed now more than ever.
Throughout the month of June, all one time gifts made here will go 100% towards our rescue and resettlement efforts. In honor of World Refugee Day 2023 and the countless people waiting for their rare and precious opportunity to reach freedom, give a gift today.
*Jennifer is a pseudonym used to protect our field manager’s identity and avoid compromising this work.