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.
Time Travelers: North Korean Defectors Resettling in South Korea
To reach freedom, North Korean defectors typically brave a perilous 3,000 mile journey through China and Southeast Asia. But even after finally reaching safety, they face a long road ahead as they begin their new lives.
The majority of North Korean refugees have resettled in South Korea. Many describe the transition like stepping out of a time machine, 50 years into the future. In addition to learning about things like the internet and ATMs, getting used to their newfound freedom alone can be a lot to grasp after decades of living in the world’s most authoritarian country.
A new journey, one of restoration, discovery, and adjustment, begins.
When North Korean refugees first reach South Korea, they go through a thorough debrief process with the National Intelligence Service to verify their background. From there, the Hanawon Settlement Support Center helps them ease into modern South Korean society.
Every defector must complete a three month adjustment program, which covers:
- Basic skills, like how to open a bank account and use the Internet
- Job and vocational training
- Field trips to shops, food courts, and other businesses
- The social and cultural differences between North and South Korea
- The history of the Korean peninsula
After completing the program, refugees receive government benefits to begin their new lives, including an initial subsidy, housing support, and healthcare.
South Korean Culture Shock
Emerging from Hanawon, North Korean refugees often experience culture shock when they find themselves fully immersed in South Korean society.
One of the first things many notice is the abundance of greenery and trees compared to North Korea. While the entire Korean peninsula was severely deforested by the mid-20th century, South Korea is one of the world’s few reforestation success stories.
Many defectors are also surprised by how safe South Korea is. One person can manage a big market stall on their own and not worry about theft, whereas goods have to be closely guarded at North Korea’s Jangmadangs. Other new experiences include the widespread availability of clothing and existence of vending machines and mannequins.
While the South Korean government provides material support, many North Korean refugees still face challenges starting over in a very different society. Just navigating daily life can be difficult at first, and making longer-term decisions like what to study or finding a stable job can be even more overwhelming.
“When I first arrived in South Korea, I was confused and didn’t know where to even start my new life in freedom. I wasn’t even sure who I was as a person.”
– Geumju, escaped North Korea in 2008
At school, additional study may be needed to catch up with their South Korean peers after decades of propaganda-based learning. In the workforce, many refugees have to retrain and re-qualify for the same jobs they had in the North, such as doctors and teachers. These discrepancies have contributed to an income gap between North and South Koreans in South Korea’s hyper competitive society.
In addition to figuring out the future, many refugees are still coping with physical and mental health issues from a traumatic past. A lack of healthcare in North Korea often results in decades of unaddressed medical and dental problems. Roughly 50% of North Korean refugees also suffer from PTSD. Many had to leave loved ones behind, witnessed or experienced torture, or survived trafficking, which can be tough to process.
Finding Community & Onward
Forming new relationships in South Korea can be one of the biggest challenges for defectors. In North Korea, lack of mobility and aspects of life organized by the regime meant that everyone in a neighborhood knew each other. To meet up with someone, it was commonplace to just stop by their home. In comparison, South Korea’s decentralized “yaksok” (promise) culture of scheduling a time and place to meet specific people may feel unfamiliar and take extra effort.
Refugees may also not want to reveal that they’re from North Korea or can have trouble sharing past experiences. Some may also experience prejudice against North Koreans for their accent or stereotypes, such as being uneducated or untrustworthy.
Overall, although life in freedom brings many advantages and benefits, it comes with some unexpected challenges. Before their escape, North Koreans may have only heard good things or focused on the positives. Moving to a foreign place and building a new life from scratch is difficult for anyone, and can be especially challenging for North Korean refugees.
Impact of the Pandemic
During the pandemic, refugee numbers have been at an all time low. Unprecedented restrictions on movement and surveillance have made the journey through China and Southeast Asia almost impossible.
On the resettlement side, refugees have also struggled as some support programs were scaled back or cut altogether. Many have felt especially lonely during this time or found it difficult to work towards their goals.
Agents of Change
Despite all odds, North Korean refugees are some of the most powerful examples of human resilience. When they have the support they need to successfully resettle in freedom, they can become some of the most effective agents of change on this issue.
Defectors are embracing and taking pride in their identity, sharing their stories on the global stage as YouTubers, entrepreneurs, and advocates. When they reclaim the narrative on North Koreans, they directly challenge the regime’s portrayal of their country.
North Korean refugees also have the unique opportunity to affect change inside North Korea through remittances. Many maintain contact with their home communities and send money back to their families, helping people inside and accelerating change at the ground level.
The Support of a Movement
Reaching freedom is just the first step. LiNK is dedicated to working with North Korean refugees to help build their capacity and realize their full potential in their new lives! We do this by:
- Organizing workshops for entrepreneurship, advocacy, and more
- Facilitating a 1:1 English tutoring program
- Sponsoring scholarships for North Korean students pursuing higher education
- Providing a community of ongoing support and resources
“I’m touched by LiNK’s supporters. I can feel their genuine heart. Before I learned more about LiNK, I just thought that I came out through a rescue network. I never imagined that so many people have been rooting for us and that it’s a bigger movement than just rescues. Now that I know all of you helped us with kind hearts, I want to succeed and do good things for others in South Korea.”
– Yuna, escaped through LiNK’s networks and resettled in 2021