In the 1990s, North Korea’s socialist economy collapsed, triggering a devastating famine that took the lives of up to a million North Koreans and changed the relationship between the people and the regime forever. The regime could not provide enough food through its public distribution system so they prioritized resources to the ruling elites, leaving millions of ordinary North Koreans to fend for themselves.
The North Korean people had to get creative to survive so they took the economy into their own hands. They abandoned defunct work units, started foraging for food, and trading in new illegal markets called ‘Jangmadang’. These markets quickly became the main source of food for ordinary North Koreans and gradually grew to include more goods and services. This new market mindset and profit motive spread throughout North Korean society ushering in a new era of “marketization from below”, fundamentally changing the relationship between the people and the regime.
"We realized that if we didn’t do anything, we’d starve to death. So we started trading."
– Joo Yang, escaped North Korea in 2010
In the past, every North Korean was assigned to a mandatory work unit and received rations from the government, but today more North Koreans have exited the state-socialist system to earn a living in the market economy. These acts are a form of ‘mass disobedience’ or ‘everyday resistance’.
By marketizing the economy, North Korean people have been able to increase their resilience to malnutrition and quality of life. Meanwhile their interests and needs have become increasingly opposed to the regime’s economic policy, restrictions, and crackdowns.
In a micro-survey inside North Korea, 72% of respondents said almost all of their income now comes from market activity!
"You’re not supposed to have private trade under socialist law. The State used to stop groups of people from gathering in groups to trade. They would go around and confiscate everything. But when everyone started trading, the state was powerless to stop it. So the markets got bigger and bigger.”
– Joo Yang, escaped North Korea in 2010
Private markets have no place in official North Korean ideology. The regime depends on this ideology for its legitimacy, so they are concerned about the role of marketization in helping the people break away from the state both physically and psychologically. Kim Jong-il himself referred to the markets as “a birthplace of all sorts of non-socialist practices.”
Over the past two decades, the regime has wavered between grudging tolerance and crackdowns. But the markets are here to stay. There are now over 400 markets officially sanctioned by the government and the regime leverages taxes and fees on merchants to generate revenue.
The regime has made serious missteps in their handling of the market economy that has further eroded the people’s trust in the state. In 2009, the regime issued a sudden currency re-evaluation to destroy private wealth and tighten control. Many North Koreans who had made money through market activities saw their savings vanish overnight.
"In 2009, there was a big currency re-evaluation. The government had changed the value of North Korean money in order to take back control. Everyone around me was panicking because suddenly all their savings had become nothing. I was lucky because most of my worth was in my products, not in cash. But I knew I couldn’t live like this for long. Two years later I crossed the Yalu river into China and left North Korea forever."
– Jessie Kim escaped North Korea in 2011
There was so much outrage from the North Korean people about the re-evaluation that the government reportedly apologized and walked-back some of their restrictions. Nonetheless, this event was a watershed moment for many North Koreans who see the regime as an impediment toward them living better lives.
The regime invests tremendous resources into indoctrinating the North Korean people and making North Korea the most closed media environment in the world. But that hasn’t stopped the people from consuming forbidden foreign media and outside information.
As the people started moving and trading within the country and across the border into China, the Jangmadang also became a place of exchange for new information and technologies. Increased access to this information is changing perceptions of the outside world and challenging the regime’s propaganda, ultimately eroding the North Korean people’s loyalty to the regime.
"Everything portrayed in the South Korean dramas was so clean and everyone seemed so wealthy. I used to think ‘Wow, there is such a world out there.’ We were taught that South Korea was a poor country but I wondered, why can’t we live like that?’."
– Jihyun Kang, escaped North Korea in 2010
The North Korean regime severely cracks down on foreign media consumption but the people continue to watch despite the risks. Through smuggled movies, television programs and even music, North Koreans are learning more about the reality of life in the outside world and the reasons for their own poverty, and they cannot unlearn these things. As this ‘education in reality’ continues, the North Korean people will be increasingly empowered to think independently from the regime. And when people think differently, they eventually act differently.
“I knew I’d be sentenced to hard labor if I watched foreign media, but I did it anyway. When I first saw the buildings, cars, and clothes on the screen I thought they were all set up just for the sake of the movie. That’s what they do on North Korean TV all the time: lie. But as I watched foreign movie after foreign movie, I thought to myself, ‘that can’t be fake. That’s got to be real.”
– Chae Hwan, escaped North Korea in 2017
Marketization is accelerating the spread of both foreign content and the devices to consume them on such as mobile phones, televisions, tablets, laptops, radios, and DVD players. Today in North Korea, it’s possible to buy cheap Chinese DVD players for around $20. USB drives have grown in popularity in recent years, and are used with computers and DVD players that have a USB input port. These drives are small enough to hide and can contain hours of content, making it easier to share and consume media without being as easily detected by the secret police.
81% of North Koreans who had left the country reported having access to a USBs.
98% of North Koreans who had a USB carried illegal media on it.
From the report 'Compromising Connectivity' – these numbers do not necessarily reflect the entire country.
The famine and grassroots marketization also triggered an unprecedented number of North Koreans to begin illegally traveling back and forth to China. This includes smugglers, traders, and even North Korean refugees who are caught and sent back. These people have had direct exposure to the outside world and share this information with their home communities, countering the regime’s propaganda.
Cross-border trade and smuggling has also exposed North Koreans to foreign products that are far superior to domestically produced ones. The knowledge that foreign countries are creating these goods is a tangible sign that the quality of life outside the country might be better.
83% of respondents said they found outside goods and information to be of greater impact on their lives than decisions by the North Korean government.
As the chasm between traditional propaganda and the people’s understanding of their reality continues to widen, and the bottom-up forces empowering the North Korean people continues to increase, the regime will be forced to:
1. Adapt its propaganda to align more with reality.
2. Allow a better standard of living in order to maintain power and control
If they fail, their propaganda will become increasingly irrelevant, or even counter-productive.
Koreans who had a USB carried illegal media on it*
If marketization and outside information are the engines that are accelerating change in North Korea, corruption is the grease that helps them go faster. In North Korea, where the laws are designed to protect the regime, there are a lot of benefits for ordinary people when the rule of law breaks down. Corruption corrodes the regime’s control and enables many of North Korea’s other social changes.
“Bribery is effective in North Korea. One cannot lead a life in North Korea if he or she does not bribe his or her way.” – North Korean refugee, from the UN report The Price Is Rights
Many economic activities in North Korea are still technically illegal. But regime officials rely on the markets and bribes for their livelihoods since their official pay is so meager. So these officials use their power and authority to extract bribes from people running businesses instead of arresting them and sentencing them for breaking the law. The threat of harsher punishments allows security officials to extract higher bribes, but this also makes it impossible for the regime to effectively crack down on private business.
Since the regime’s institutions are the only agencies with legal rights in North Korea, it’s inevitable that entrepreneurs will bribe regime officials to obtain their licenses which causes a breakdown in government authority. Driven by the profit-motive and enabled by corruption, a variety of businesses have emerged such as restaurants, karaoke bars, bathhouses and even private coal mines, all taking advantage of the new business environment.
North Koreans who are now in their 20s and early 30s grew up after the collapse of the state-socialist economy and that is the only North Korea they know. These North Korean millennials are the Jangmadang Generation and their attitudes, values, and behaviors are significantly different from their parents’ and grandparents’.
“Our parents’ generation was given everything by the government. But not our generation – we had to find our own food and make our own money. Our generation had to learn how to do everything for ourselves."
– Min Sung, escaped North Korea in 2010
The Jangmadang Generation grew up in an era where people had to fend for themselves. Many of them never relied on the state for work, food, wealth, status, protection, or information. Traditional ideology seems hollow and irrelevant to them, and they are more influenced by foreign media.
It’s no surprise then that many of these young North Koreans show more interest in foreign films, fashions, and music, and feel little attachment to the regime or the leadership, seeing regime officials as takers rather than providers and as the source of problems inside the country. They have less respect for the regime compared to previous generations, and this demographic is only going to grow with time. They will be crucial in pushing for change in the future.
Since the famine, North Koreans have been risking their lives to escape the country by the thousands. Over 33,000 North Korean refugees have made it all the way to South Korea, with an unknown number still in China.
These refugees play a crucial role as a bridge between the outside world and North Korea:
1. Many maintain contact with family members still in North Korea, sending information back in and increasing the North Korean people’s awareness of the outside world.
2. Refugees also send an estimated 15 million dollars a year back into the country through broker networks. This money represents huge spending power in the North Korean markets. It not only covers basic needs and bribes to secure a family’s well-being but is also used as seed money for business activities.
A resettled North Korean refugee in South Korea wires money to a Chinese bank account.
After wiring the money, they call a broker inside North Korea. The broker is typically close to the Chinese border and can pick up cell service using a smuggled Chinese cell phone.
The broker confirms that the funds have arrived in the Chinese bank account.
After confirming the funds have arrived the broker dispenses money to the resettled North Korean’s family using money they already have inside the country.
Because it’s illegal to leave North Korea without the regime’s permission, crossing the border is an act of defiance against the repressive government. As more people become aware of the rising numbers of their fellow North Koreans ‘voting with their feet’ and leading better lives in more affluent neighboring countries, this presents another growing challenge to the legitimacy of the North Korean regime.
Authoritarian regimes like North Korea often ensure their power by preventing the people from forming bonds with each other outside of the state’s control. They remove societal mechanisms that might produce a challenge to their authority and utilize a society-wide system of informants to keep people’s everyday behavior in check, which generates a sense of mistrust and fear between the people.
However, North Koreans are increasingly engaging in shared illegal activities such as illicit business or gathering with small groups of friends to watch foreign films. They are more reliant on each other for goods and information that the regime is either unwilling or unable to provide. Shared participation in illegal activities such as trading banned products or discussion of “subversive” information leads to mutual dependence, trust-building, and the normalization of such disobedience within communities. This encourages further sharing, private discussion, and the strengthening of bonds between the people. Ultimately this could result in a growing civil space for the people, separate from the regime.
“We would call all our closest friends, people you could really trust, and get them together to watch foreign media. If you watched it together then no one would report it because they’d go down for it too."
– Shimon Huh, escaped North Korea in 2013
The regime’s repressive security apparatus is still too effective to allow any public challenge to the ruling elite. People may be more open with sharing their views, but they are still very cautious, and anything more than very private criticism of the regime within a trusted group of friends or relatives is still too risky.
Grassroots marketization and the spread of outside information may be contributing to the emergence of a growing space for people who are breaking off from the state not just at an individual level but increasingly at a community level. This may enable people to push back against the regime collectively, on small and localized issues at first. There is evidence that this is already happening!