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.
A North Korean Defector’s Nine Year Journey to Freedom | Eunju’s Story
I didn’t know I was hungry until I was eight years old. Growing up, I had no concept of whether my hometown was wealthy or poor. Then when the great famine struck in the mid-90s, more people died in our city than anywhere else in the country.
That’s when I realized “Oh, this is the most difficult place to live in North Korea.”
I was born in the city of Eundok, North Hamgyong Province. Before that it was called Aoji, a destitute place infamous for its coal mines, where South Korean prisoners of war were sent to work.
In the middle of a long famine, people lose all sense of humanity. You couldn’t survive without dirtying your hands. My father was a kindhearted person, the type that was unable to hurt anyone. But towards the end, hunger drove him to steal from our own house.
On my first day of middle school, I couldn’t find my new backpack anywhere. It turns out that my dad had taken it to the Jangmadang, traded it for food, and eaten it by himself. In the end, he still died from starvation, and my mom, my sister, and I were left to fend for ourselves.
We heard that if we went to China, we could eat all the candy we wanted. With that one piece of information, my mom said she’d rather get shot crossing the Tumen river than starve in North Korea.
It was mid-February in 1999, during the bitter cold winter. The water was frozen solid and stretched over 100 meters across. My mom went first, followed by my sister, and I was in the very back. Maybe it was because I was anxious, but my shoes felt so slippery and I kept falling over as they went farther and farther ahead. We heard that soldiers would shoot anyone who tried to cross the river. But this was our only chance at survival.
My mind was racing, “What if I’m left behind and get caught?” My mom and sister probably feared the same thing.
We encountered a tributary that wasn’t frozen all the way, so my mom waited and had me go first because I was the lightest. A few steps in, the ice broke and I fell into the piercing cold water. None of us knew how to swim. At that moment, I really thought it was the end. But then my feet hit the ground. We had made it to the other side.
Not long after we had crossed into China, a Korean-speaking woman came up to us. She invited us to her house and gave us over a dozen boiled eggs, more food than we had seen in years. In North Korea, when my sister and I had a field trip for school, my mom would cut one boiled egg and give each of us half in our lunch box. To have this much at once was a true luxury. For the first time in a long while, we dared to have some hope.
But then my mom was sold off to a Chinese man. The fortunate thing was that even though my sister and I were 16 and 14 years old, we were so short that people asked if we were 7 or 8. They couldn’t sell us separately, so we were sent together with our mom.
We had been sold for 2000 yuan. When we wanted to leave, the man told us to pay him back. We worked in his house and on his farm but of course we never saw a penny. For three years, we lived in confinement, and my little brother was born.
On a quiet night before my brother was even a year old, Chinese police came to the house in the dark, knocked on the door, and arrested us.
When North Koreans get caught, sometimes they’ll roll up their money and eat it or hide it, but we didn’t have anything. We were taken back across the border with just our clothes. It’s well known that there’s a physical exam to look for hidden money. In a way, you shouldn’t even feel a basic sense of shame as a woman and as a human being. If you cry or plead for mercy, you’ll get beaten up. You cannot question them at all.
With so many people in North Korea dying of starvation, names were removed from the family register after three years without any news. We had already been declared dead. There were two minors and an adult, but our identities couldn’t be confirmed. At the time they couldn’t keep minors in prison without a ruling from the court, so we were entrusted to another person from our hometown. No one wanted extra mouths to feed, so he just let us go.
We went straight to the Tumen river and in 2002, we escaped again.
I had enough food when I was in China. Even dogs and pigs ate rice and corn. But we lived looking over our shoulders, in constant fear of the police.
When we heard about life in South Korea, where our safety and identities would be guaranteed, we decided to defect once more. We were introduced to a broker, gave them some cash upfront, and traveled through Mongolia and the Gobi Desert.
On September 1st, 2006, I arrived at Incheon airport with my mom. My sister joined us in South Korea in 2008. Nine years after first crossing the Tumen River, we were finally together in freedom.
When I was in China, my only wish was that my mom, sister, and I could sleep together, eat together, and come home from work together. I dreamed that someday we could go to the supermarket and get a whole cart full of things to share. After coming to South Korea, we achieved not only that, but everything we’ve ever wanted.
I co-authored a book about my journey, A Thousand Miles to Freedom, with a foreign journalist named Sebastien Falletti. He interviewed several North Koreans, and I agreed to share my story with him out of a sense of duty. I never thought he’d choose me.
Compared to North Korean defectors who live special lives, I don’t actually dream of being a human rights activist. There are times when I don’t want to share anymore and I feel like I have to repeat myself.
But then I think about my best friend in North Korea. Her name is Sunhwa and I don’t think she’s here yet. I imagine that she would want to live like me — to attend college, pave her own way, and explore the vast world we live in. But she is still stuck in the darkness. Until Sunhwa can live a life of freedom, I feel a sense of responsibility to continue to share.
When I think of North Korea, the dark image of my hometown floods my memories. But I would still like to go back just once and visit my dad’s grave. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that he was also a victim of the North Korean regime. I have hope that in this lifetime, North Korea will open up. I’ll return with my mom and my sister, and together we’ll visit my dad’s resting place and prepare a huge meal for him.
For North Koreans to share their stories with audiences around the world, retelling and reliving some of the most harrowing experiences, is an act of exceptional courage. They’re working towards the day when others no longer have to go through the same painful experiences.
You can help rescue more North Korean refugees and support them as they begin their new lives in freedom.