North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How The Information Underground Is Transforming a Closed Society
Yale University Press, 2016, $30
There is increasing interest in North Korea, and not just from those interested in foreign policy or nuclear non-proliferation. Books, articles, interviews with North Korean officials, and even well-heeled tourists from developed countries want to see or read about this oddly exotic place. The oddity derives from the fact that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is the last Stalinist dictatorship—we hope. But if it goes to the ash heap, it is not going quietly.
Jieun Baek’s North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground Is Transforming a Closed Society is useful and promising, but its content is less optimistic than the title suggests. North Korean society has been transformed in the past twenty years, and her examination—filtered through the eyes of defectors—is convincing. But the information revolution, whatever changes it has wrought at ground level, has not brought anything close to a political revolution to the DPRK. Violations of human rights by those who control the country have continued unabated, and no organized political opposition to the regime is yet detectable.
The conditions of some lives in North Korea may be different from before on account of a limited IT-induced opening of sorts, but the regime’s threats to the outside are if anything more menacing than before. Baek’s call-to-action is to stimulate dissemination of ever more foreign information into North Korea. Her hope is that marketization and better knowledge of the world will pressure Kim Jong-un to reappraise his domestic and foreign priorities.
But the link between a change in the information environment and the upper reaches of a highly autocratic political culture is tenuous. It has long been tempting to see certain kinds of technology as generating inevitable political shifts. Said John Dewey in 1927,
[Carlysle said] “Invent the printing press and democracy is inevitable.” Add to this: Invent the railway, the telegraph, mass manufacture and concentration of population in urban centers, and some form of democratic government is, humanly speaking, inevitable.1
It’s turned out, more than a century on, not to be so simple.
Meanwhile, despite being poor, small, and isolated, North Korea defies its neighbors, the United States, and the United Nations and demands attention with repeated nuclear weapons tests interspersed with tests of various ballistic and guided missiles. Threats continue at high volume. Nuclear and ballistic missile tests have become substantial and frequent. Major international sanctions, generated by the UN Security Council in response to nuclear weapons tests, are thus far indecisive. At the same time, North Korea remains dependent on outside sources—now mostly China—for food, fuel, and money. If such dependencies have not altered its outward behavior now over many years, it’s hardly a cinch that information technology will.
Until the mid-1990s, North Korea followed its ideology of juche, a kind of autarkic self-sufficiency, constantly praised but never attained. Kim Jong-il, succeeding his father in 1994, shifted his rule’s orientation from the Korean Workers Party to the army. This adjusted ideology was called Songun, or “military first.” But ideology cannot be eaten, and so famine followed.
Now, Kim Jong-un, whose preparation period for leadership was far shorter than his father’s, has chosen to be more conspicuous. He looks more like a younger version of Kim Il-sung and has, to a degree, decided to strengthen the Party. Numerous changes of military leaders have also occurred, and the leadership phrase now is Byungjin, or a dual track for the military and the economy. For the first time, a bit of prosperity is treated as a goal, but, as before, the regime mistreats and starves its population, and it summarily executes senior officials and some luckless commoners to keep the fear quotient high enough for purposes of systematic intimidation.
North Korea’s threatening actions are rooted in a sense of impunity. For many years, long before the DPRK developed nuclear weapons, its leaders believed that the vulnerability of South Korea, especially Seoul, would restrain any military response to North Korean actions well short of full-scale attack. There has been plenty of evidence to sustain this notion.
The close proximity of Seoul—and so much of South Korea’s development—has made South Korea vulnerable to artillery, of which the North has thousands of pieces, many well concealed and well within range of metropolitan Seoul. Chemical weapons have been a part of this threat, too. Nuclear weapons add marginally to the long-standing threat to South Korea, but their real purpose is to provide the international notoriety that the DPRK finds useful. However, the nuclear and missile threat that now extends beyond the peninsula is a frightening new element. There is a greater risk to Japan and U.S. forces based there, and to Guam, even Hawaii, and, potentially, the U.S. mainland itself.
Efforts to negotiate with North Korea in limited ways—some would say “bribe,” with security assurances and tangible incentives—had some success in the 1990s, but it is uncertain now that any price or guarantee would convince Kim Jong-un to reduce his nuclear weapons and missile capabilities. A significant Six-Party Talks agreement of 2005 is now all but ignored. So future diplomacy may be possible, but the lack of enforcement of agreements already signed casts a pall on what future efforts are likely to accomplish. IT technology cannot change any of this.
No characteristic of North Korea has marked the 68 years under the Kim family more than isolation. Visitors have been few and carefully escorted to minimize outside influences on its people. Even now, tourists tend to be shepherded about in small groups, in contrast to the masses they represent everywhere else. Borders are carefully sealed, though never with complete success. But sealed nevertheless: Over 25 years, fewer than 30,000 North Koreans—usually refugees but called defectors—have managed to reach South Korea. This is less than a tenth of a percent of North Korea’s population. Given the forbidding and lethal Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the Koreas, most defectors have emerged through China, and an unknown number have stayed there. Although there are many Chinese nationals of Korean decent, most defectors—identified by China not as refugees or defectors, but as “economic migrants”—are sent back to face punishment.
Baek recognizes the history that has gone before but is focused on ordinary people in North Korea as represented by the defectors who have made their way South. Defectors reaching South Korea have declined in recent years (there was apparently a small increase in 2016). Kim Jong-un’s regime has emphasized tighter border security. Defectors are not a cross section of North Korea, coming predominantly from the Northeast provinces. Defections are less common from other areas, given the dangers of the DMZ, and restriction on travel within North Korea.
Such numbers each year are not evidence of weakness of the North Korean regime. Baek bases her analysis on an in-depth interview process in South Korea of defectors from the North. Using her Korean language skills, the interviews can give a sense of attitudes and practices that affect many. Information realities have changed the world, and they are even changing the nature of North Korean isolation. Baek also draws on one well-cossetted visit to North Korea.
She describes the basic changes within North Korea brought on by the mid-1990s famine, which killed 3–5 percent of the population—nearly a million people. Such a number has no precedent among countries at the DPRK’s stage of development. Unlike other countries with tragic famines, North Korea has high rates of literacy, schools, and doctors—most of the latter, however, have few or no medications to prescribe.
During the 1990s, North Korea began evolving from its particular kind of socialism to a kind of grass-roots capitalism. Small bribes of police and officials were a longstanding practice. As the collective farms declined without the Soviet Union’s shipments of fertilizer, and as much of North Korea sunk into famine, attempts to set up local markets were ruthlessly suppressed. But as famine took root and bodies piled up, the centrally directed food distribution system just broke down. It was replaced by tiny markets, which managed to persist, and later to thrive and grow.
The only way for the population to feed itself was the development of many informal, local markets. The network—mainly of women, as both suppliers and sellers—became the only way for most people outside the capital to survive, and slowly the system was tacitly accepted. Life became much more a series of transactions involving money. These transactions used the North Korean won, but it also included U.S. dollars and the Chinese renminbi.
For people who did not starve, the effect has been major. Local markets, ruthlessly suppressed under Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, became a necessity and then a reality throughout the countryside. This meant that everyone became a buyer or a seller—often both—and that some kind of money was necessary and had to be obtained in one way or another. Grass roots capitalism took root, and despite attempts to control it—including a disastrous reissue of currency in 2009—food and other tangible goods can now be bought if one has the money. The result is some limited prosperity in the countryside and more new SUVs in Pyongyang.
At the same time, information and related technology have also affected North Korean life. Over the 1970s and 1980s, as South Korea’s explosive development surged, experts and the few foreign visitors to North Korea could sense that the regime’s propaganda had taken root. Ordinary North Koreans living arduous lives under the indulgence of the “Great Leader” had no reason to doubt that they were better off than others in the world. Kim Il-sung was becoming more nationalist than communist and acted more as a traditional Korean monarch. South Korea was portrayed as a humble captive of foreigners, at least up to the 1988 Olympics. Now, most North Koreans know that China and South Korea are rich, and that they are poor. For an absolute dictatorship, this realization is a problem.
The second great shift, well described by Baek’s interviews, is the advent of information technology. For most of North Korea’s history since being set up by the Soviets in 1948, information was controlled absolutely. Over the years in North Korea, domestic travel was rendered very hard. Even bicycles were sharply limited. After television arrived in the 1960s it joined radio, both built to have but a single channel, as an adjunct of the propaganda ministry. Films and movies were utterly controlled, and there are bizarre and fascinating stories of Kim Jong-il’s infatuation with cinema, even to the point in 1978 of kidnapping a South Korean director and his actress wife.
But over the past twenty years, along with markets, the information technology revolution has had major effects. Mobile phones, video tapes, CDs, DVDs, personal computers, and thumb drives that can be used on small and cheap players have all penetrated deeply into North Korea despite pervasive efforts to block them—including prison sentences, starvation, and occasional public executions for the crime of mere possession.
Radio has played a role, including short-wave stations such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. South Korean NGOs, often religious in orientation, for many years have operated radio stations aimed at the North. Baek describes which programs are well received, including the importance of using North Koreans with their unique accents on radio. Subject matter plays a role, too. North Koreans do know about propaganda, so lectures in opposition have limited effect. Popular entertainment, dramas of people’s lives, and escapist programming are most often what people want. Beyond the drama, backgrounds of cars and cities and roomy apartments have their own demonstration effect.
All this has been intensified by young South Koreans’ “cool” reputation throughout Asia and beyond. South Korean dramas, video serials that have become popular far from Korea, and “K-Pop” music have spread through Japan and China. These have taken root in the North despite the regime’s unceasing efforts and ruthless punishments. But one gets the impression that the authorities are less dedicated to suppression than in the past.
Baek is persuasive about the information underground, and her recommendation is that governments, NGOs, and individuals send more of all kinds. But the question remains whether this is likely to have any critical effect on North Korea as a threat to its neighbors or to Kim Jong-un and his party and army? Can North Korea be a little more open without changing its dictatorial control?
Most likely it can. Despite many 1990s predictions of some kind of collapse, nothing of the sort has happened. Conditions in North Korea are in many respects unchanged: a huge army, absolute control by the third Kim, loud combative threats, and another year of living with the Military Armistice negotiated in 1953. Seoul, South Korea’s economic and political capital, now gleaming and wealthy, continues to be threatened by thousands of artillery batteries well able to destroy it. And that is only the “conventional” threat.
Much has also changed, however. North Korea is, after five nuclear weapons tests since 2006, an acknowledged if not accepted nuclear weapons power, accompanied by scores of ballistic missile tests to raise the threat level. The 33-year old Kim Jong-un has pointedly matched (or bested) his father and grandfather in ruthlessness, lest anyone believe that his inexperience might be enough to enable serious political change.
So far, there is little sign of internal challenge to the regime. There may be some slight easing of information-focused repression. Even if that is true, no North Korean can be sure that the power of the state will not be used on him—and, of course, one’s children, spouse, and parents. And unchecked pressure continues to suppress freedom of assembly of any kind and to prevent easy travel from place to place. A real revolution from the grassroots is, sadly, as unlikely as ever.
The people of North Korea may now know better their sad position. Some few, likely from Northeastern provinces, will make it through China and on to South Korea. Regime change will happen some day, but probably not soon.
With the inauguration of America’s 45th President, a fresh look at global threats, few more serious than North Korea, is likely. President Trump will join a line going back to Harry Truman to face serious challenges on the Korean Peninsula. During the presidential campaign, American alliances were called into question and dangers to America itself or to its deployed forces overseas will be examined. With U.S. armed forces—some 28,000—on the ground in South Korea, deterrence of any major attack has worked. But the threat is now more direct to U.S. forces in Japan, to Japan itself, or even to Guam. Worse, officials believe that North Korea is approaching possession of armed missiles with nuclear warheads that could credibly threaten the American homeland. Influential voices have termed that “unacceptable.”
There is therefore a new surge of American frustration with North Korea. If the nuclear missile danger to the homeland is realized, that frustration will deepen. But America must not forget its ally, South Korea. Its achievements have been great, and the South Korean armed forces are large and capable. The ROK also supports U.S. forces in Korea to the tune of $800 million per year. But because of the nuclear threats, Seoul must rely on its treaty ally, the United States, and on “extended deterrence,” namely the American nuclear umbrella. South Korean politics are confused as I write this, but the dangers from North Korea are as great as ever. Unilateral tendencies in the United States, fueled by frustration with North Korea, have to be considered with care.
Talks with North Korea are unpopular, to be sure, and there is no sentiment in the U.S. Congress to approve any tangible assistance to North Korea, even for serious denuclearization, which is anyway very unlikely. But informal U.S. contacts with the North can be useful and should be quietly continued.
Another complication is human rights, now receiving appropriately greater emphasis. Over the years, North Korea was so closed that outsiders did not even have the names of any concentration camp inmates. Frightening stories emerged but governments said little. South Korean governments, at least prior to the 1990s, were not very concerned with such issues at a time when everything was seen in terms of the North-South conflict. Later, “progressive” South Korean governments considered human rights issues but had no desire to make their North-South negotiations any more difficult than they already were.
Gradually, and particularly through the active involvement of South Korean churches—some working through American co-religionists—attention was drawn to the North. The U.S. Congress responded with legislation in 2005. In 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council authorized an international Commission of Inquiry. Its scathing report stung North Korea and Kim Jong-un. Its diplomatic and propaganda organs reacted in an aggressive, even panicked fashion. The result is that human rights issues and concerns must be a part of any serious discussions. This is as it should be, but it is also an ongoing complication.
So will North Korea go on forever? Every bit of history says it will not. The winners of that endgame, if there is one, are likely to be some new set of dictatorial elites. China has much to say in such a case, and its concern for masses of refugees or having a U.S. ally on its border must be considered.
To prepare for some better days, the U.S. and South Korean governments must help get information across the borders. A better-informed populace may react more effectively if there is a break. But the revolution in North Korea is not here, yet.
There is no easy alternative for the United States and its allies. They must pursue a full range of diplomatic steps and economic measures, including sanctions. Perhaps riskier measures against North Korea will become necessary if North Korean actions become even more threatening. But deterrence coupled with patient and flexible diplomacy is probably the best approach, even if it is an unsatisfying one in so many ways.
1John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (Holt, 1927), p. 110.