Because of the difficulty of performing research on North Korea, many authors tend to aim their “camera” downwards from a bird’s eye view, providing readers with a general sense of change over time without diving deep into the hearts and minds of the people affected. Jieun Baek’s poignant contribution to the literature, on the other hand, reminds us how profoundly human this story is.
In “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution,” the author draws on over ten years of experience working and consulting with North Korean defectors, missionaries, NGO staffers, journalists, and academics. The author’s Korean language abilities give her the ability to converse with relevant subjects and experts and to more easily understand the nuances of the North Korean experience.
Baek’s most poignant contribution to the literature is reminding us how profoundly human this story is
HOW NORTH KOREA OPENED UP
In the former Soviet Union, the contradiction between propaganda and reality was described as “the battle between the television and the refrigerator.” For much of North Korea’s history, the vast majority of residents were able to access only locked-dial radios featuring state broadcasts, party-run newspapers touting the regime’s accomplishments, and propaganda movies celebrating the military derring-do of Kim Il Sung and the Korean People’s Army.
This changed when the country was struck by economic and natural disaster in the 1990s, facilitating the emergence of grassroots markets and a more porous Sino-Korean border. The North Korean authorities were forced to begrudgingly legalize the grey markets in the early 2000s with the introduction of official marketplaces known as Jonghap Sijang.
Baek summarizes the germane socio-political trends without getting too bogged down in the details. As we’ve seen in past North Korea books, it can be easy for knowledgeable scholars to fall into the trap of over-explaining interesting but tangential morsels of history.
Concise descriptions provide important context: the government’s ideological indoctrination and monitoring systems, the social classification system built on family history and Party loyalty, the overlapping government agencies and systems of control, and the regime’s longstanding monopoly over information.
It is important to know, for instance, that North Korean children are taught addition using dead American soldiers, that North Koreans are trained and expected to report on one another for infractions, and that North Korean residents are barred from traveling between cities or into China without official permission.
This all sets us up for a surprise when we see how outside information is changing North Koreans’ opinions about Americans, that people are becoming less likely to report on one another for infractions and more likely to use bribes to get around the rules.
Baek consistently prioritizes personal triumphs and struggles over lengthy descriptions of historical context. In doing so, she offers the readers a deep understanding of the human costs of the Kim regime’s oppressive policies and the people’s subtle intellectual disobedience.
Outside information is changing North Koreans’ opinions about Americans
At one point we are introduced to a character named Joo-Won who is forced to work a lowly state construction job relegated to citizens on the bottom rungs of the social ladder. This is a reference to the Speed Battle Youth Shock Brigade, created under Kim Jong Il to assist with state construction projects.
Under this program, young men with poor songbun (social ranking) are dispatched to work on dangerous construction sites for a service period of ten years.
Readers interested in such detail can easily turn to other sources to get it, but the larger point is that, at the same time that Baek carefully maintains a focus on the heart of the story, she also offers readers a glimpse of new and different worlds within North Korea.
In the final chapter, Baek argues for doubling down on information distribution campaigns as part of the long-game for producing change inside North Korea. Baek’s personal involvement with the subject matter underscores the seriousness of this plea. According to correspondence with the author, proceeds from book sales are being contributed to organizations involved in these campaigns.
In evaluating this book as a work of scholarship, it’s important to determine whether Baek presents a detailed and accurate depiction of the improvised networks that have formed to produce and consume outside information. Next, it’s important to judge how the general trends portrayed by the book complement or challenge information gained from other sources. Last, we should ask if the author over-attributes the dependent variable.
People are becoming less likely to report on one another for infractions and more likely to use bribes to get around the rules
MAKING AN IMPACT?
Themes brought up in the defector testimonies that Baek recounts are consistent with other testimonials. For example, one female defector describes how she was able to tell which drama her friends were watching based solely on their hairstyle and the South Korean actress it was inspired by.
This echoes accounts of North Koreans using code words to signal to one another that they consume foreign information. In a 2011 interview, one female from North Pyongan Province said: “My kids use quite a lot of South Korean-style spoken language… You commonly see South Korean clothing styles like dresses. Hairstyles too; people follow the styles from South Korean movie stars or TV drama characters.”
Baek does not overstate the impact and importance of information distribution, and is careful to note that planting the seeds for a civil society is merely one component among many needed to move the needle and create positive social change in North Korea. Even regular consumers of outside information recount that they only came to grips with the singular severity of the regime’s human rights abuses after defecting.
Similar to the prisoners in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, they only understood the contours of their prison cell once they managed to escape it. This is a motif that we’ve heard from past accounts, with one foreign information consumer saying, “At first, I didn’t trust the broadcasts… Going to China a couple of times helped me understand the truth a bit easier.”
A final caveat: one of the best sources of information on this topic is a report issued by Intermedia, based on a BBG survey of 250 North Koreans. Unfortunately, Baek’s book went to print before the latest report went public, which means that its findings could not be included. Evidence presented in that report seems to indicate that punishments for consuming outside information are becoming more severe and regime initiatives to crack down are becoming more sophisticated.
One female defector describes how she was able to discern which drama her friends were watching based solely on their hairstyle
Other sources also hint that recent changes in the relationship between information consumers and the authorities are tilting the playing board in favor of the regime. North Korean authorities revised the criminal code in 2015 to dramatically increase the maximum prison sentence for consuming “decadent media” from two years to ten years.
In addition, a slew of newly formed specialty crackdown units such as Group 727 and Group 114 seem to be more efficient than their predecessor, the bribery-laden Group 109. These new units are reportedly making “North Koreans… more afraid to watch South Korean movies.” Nonetheless, there is mixed evidence about the efficacy of this restructuring for stamping out the rampant bribery.
In correspondence with this author, Baek agrees that the new Intermedia report, “shows that the regime is responding to the expanding information landscape by creating software and new mechanisms to further surveil, monitor, censor and punish unauthorized information.”
This means that the regime does have the upper hand and is improving its ability to crack down, but it does not mean that people will stop seeking out outside information.
“The curiosity and demand that people continue to exhibit for foreign information still remains strong. The cat-and-mouse game between the regime and NK citizens over information access to continue for the foreseeable future, in my opinion.”
Those interested in peering past the superficial images of North Korea presented in mass media and North Korean propaganda will be thoroughly intrigued by the stories and people showcased in this book, a rare snapshot of a quickly evolving aspect of one of the world’s most isolated nations.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: 未标题-3副本 by Roamme on 2011-06-12 15:13:25