Joy's Story: Part 3 - A Difficult Decision
When I started living with the Chinese man I was sold to, I thought of escaping after six months. I just did what the Chinese man wanted without thinking about birth-control—I never had proper sex education. Two months later, he and his family took me to a hospital for a pregnancy test. I was pregnant. I am so sorry to my daughter for this, but after I got pregnant was so miserable and I felt like I was stuck in this situation because of the baby. I knew that I couldn’t escape until I gave birth to my daughter and raised her for a while. I was not happy, but the Chinese man and his family were. I am very sorry to my daughter for how I felt about having her back then, but the pregnancy was not what I wanted and I didn’t love the Chinese man. I actually tried to abort the baby by jumping down from a high tree many times but it didn’t happen.
I ended up having a daughter and raised her for two years before I escaped.
When I was still raising my daughter and living with the Chinese man and I was losing hope about my life, the North Korean broker who sold me into marriage got back to me and introduced me to some people who later connected me to LiNK’s network. She told me that she felt really bad for selling me to the Chinese man but she had to do it to survive in China as a North Korean herself. When she told me about going to South Korea and life there, I felt like that was my last chance to have my life back again. At that point, I was no longer breastfeeding and my baby had started to talk, so I thought the Chinese man’s parents could take care of her. I decided to leave for South Korea.
I was so sad to leave my two-year-old daughter in China.
Before I left, I thought of taking her with me, but she was still very young and I was not sure if I was going to make it to South Korea safely so I didn't want to risk her life.
To this day I feel guilty and sorry about having left her so I could have freedom and better life. I know my daughter has been hurt a lot by my leaving.
Before I started moving to get out of China I stayed with some other defectors before I got connected to LiNK's network. At the time, I cried every day thinking of my daughter. Even when I was sleeping in the house, I kept waking up to see if my little daughter was sleeping well on my arm and realized that she was not with me anymore.
I didn't want to cry in front of other defectors, so I cried behind a curtain and I found another North Korean woman crying there because she also left her child. We ended up hugging each other and crying together.
Since I resettled to South Korea a few years ago, I have been talking with my daughter through online video calls as often as possible. She is doing well and is now in elementary school, but I can tell she has been so hurt by my absence in her life. It breaks my heart when she asks me why I am not with her. Whenever there is homework about family or whenever her teacher asks her to bring her mom, she gets so sad and I feel so helpless and remorseful. I plan to visit her in China on one of my summer breaks from college.
It is so ironic because I was so hurt a lot by my mom for leaving me and my family when I was a little kid and I did the same thing to my own daughter.
Now I understand why my mom had to make such a decision...Hopefully there will be a day my daughter can understand and forgive me.
Foreign Media in North Korea - How Kpop is Challenging the Regime
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.