Secrecy. Control. Dictatorship. Is that what comes to mind when you think of North Korea? You aren’t wrong to think this — the North Korean government makes it a top priority to make certain you think this.
But what about the people of North Korea? What about refugee issues? Or human rights issues? Or simply the everyday lives of the 25 million people living in the country?
“The general understanding of the American public when it comes to North Korea is very heavily shaped and portrayed by what we see in the media. … It’s oftentimes about the nuclear and the security issues,” says Hannah Song, president and CEO of Liberty in North Korea, an organization that rescues North Korean refugees.
“The North Korean people have been missing from this narrative for so long, which is kind of crazy when you think about it because of the fact that North Korea is a country of 25 million people,” Song says.
“Oftentimes [the] North Korean government is portrayed as being vilified or as being dangerous, and the people … get lumped up into that.”
We don’t often hear anything about the people. It’s on purpose. And the problem with excluding the North Korean people from the narrative is that the less humanity we can associate with North Korea, the less we’re compelled to change the injustices occurring there. It seems like a lost cause. But it’s not true — there’s so much we can do.
What’s happening in North Korea?
There’s a lot we don’t know about what’s going on in North Korea. The government goes to great lengths to display a carefully crafted image to the international community. We have very little opportunity to contact anyone inside the country.
We don’t have a way to sneak a peek at political prison camps, where many North Koreans are sent without any due process for any type of political dissent or hostility toward the government — sometimes multiple generations of a family are sent to these camps for the crime of just one family member.
Amnesty International estimates that, based on satellite imagery, about 200,000 people are held in six large political prison camps in the country.
We have more information now than we used to because of the thousands of North Korean defectors who have managed to escape in the last 10 to 20 years. And their testimony tells a grave story of human rights violations.
No freedom of movement. No freedom of religion. No access to information. Enslavement, rape, torture, forced abortions and other acts of sexual violence, starvation, and even murder.
These are all crimes committed by a government on its own people.
“One of the biggest travesties that we see here is honestly that this is decades of human potential that’s been lost in North Korea because the government has prioritized absolute control above all else,” Song says.
[Editor's note: This article was originally written and published before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. You can read about how the pandemic is affecting North Korea here.]
North Korea: There’s Reason to Hope
Despite the terrible atrocities we have learned take place in the country from the defectors who have escaped it, there is reason to have hope for North Korea. Why? Because there are 25 million people in the country not only facing incredible challenges but overcoming them.
It’s happening at a grassroots level. In the 1990s, as many as 420,000 North Koreans died because of a severe famine in the country. The government was incapable of eradicating the famine, so the people took it into their own hands and developed a widespread — and illegal — black market system.
The creation of these markets was a turning point because the North Korean people began to find and create ways to survive on their own. They couldn’t rely on the government but came to rely on the markets to get what they needed. The result, unsurprisingly, was a sense of empowerment, which led to a series of social changes we still see unfolding today.
According to Hannah Song, there are three major positive social changes we can point to in North Korea:
- There’s a sort of de facto capitalism thriving within markets.
The government reluctantly tolerates this despite officially maintaining a socialist economy.
- North Koreans are experiencing an influx of information from the outside world through DVDs and other media materials.
These materials are opening their eyes to the reality of what’s happening both within and outside of the country.
- And strangely enough, one of the things we can be most hopeful about in North Korea is the rampant corruption. “It’s sort of a double-edged sword,” Song says.
“What corruption has done has actually allowed some relative freedom. If you have the ability to bribe an official, you could find yourself getting out of a sticky situation where perhaps you were caught with this illegal piece of media or you were caught with this illegal Chinese cell phone or if you want to travel to a few towns over, you could bribe an official and get the paperwork that you need to be able to do that.”
Like most things involving people, it’s complicated. But the people in North Korea are finding both subtle and blatant ways to subvert the injustices they face.
For one, there’s a sense of shared disobedience, especially among young people. The millennial generation living in North Korea grew up with little to no experience or memory of the government providing for them, much unlike their parents’ generation.
These young people’s experience is largely of getting what they need through the black markets instead of from the state. As a result, the younger generation — called the Jangmadang or “market” generation — has less sense of loyalty and reverence for the government.
Song says these younger North Koreans are much more curious and tolerant to risk.
On top of the subtle ways North Koreans uncover the taste of freedom within the country, more than 30,000 people have escaped the country. These defectors now have the opportunity to be agents of change for the country they escaped and the people they left behind.
Research indicates that about 50 percent of defectors actually re-establish contact with their family inside North Korea.
Of course, it’s not as simple as picking up the phone and making an international phone call. It takes a covert network and smuggled cell phones to reach family, but it’s worth it because defectors are able to send money back home through underground brokers who deliver remittances directly to family members inside the country, usually anywhere from $1,000–15,000 at one time.
The average income in North Korea is just over $1,100 USD annually, so even $1,000 is substantial spending potential.
“[The money] empowers family members in North Korea to engage in market activities, to invest in their own market activities, to bribe officials, to protect themselves, to provide themselves with goods that they need,” Song says.
The Path to Freedom for North Koreans
The path to leaving North Korea is, unsurprisingly, not easy. In many ways, it’s like a modern-day underground railroad, Song says.
It’s dangerous and lengthy — 3,000 miles by train, bus, car, and in large part by foot, all done covertly because if caught, escapees could be sent back to North Korea to face serious punishment.
Even if they make it to China, North Koreans still face danger because the Chinese government arrests and forcibly repatriates refugees.
Even if they evade arrest in China, they still face hardship because their illegal status makes them vulnerable to sex trafficking and exploitative employers since they can’t be in the public eye.
Liberty in North Korea steps in at that point to help North Korean refugees out of China. The organization operates largely by referrals received from North Koreans they’ve already helped escape who now want to help bring their families out.
The organization has a network of partners they work with in China and southeast Asia plus their own staff who helps defectors complete the last leg of their journey once they make it to China.
“When we meet them at the very tail-end of this journey, and they finally make it to southeast Asia, and we’re able to meet them and welcome them and say, ‘you are safe,’ there’s nothing like it,” Song says.
“Just the mix of emotions and just the opportunity for them to really breathe a sigh of relief and for the first time to feel safe and to really begin to dream and imagine their future.”
The work organizations like Liberty in North Korea do is to create a day when the North Korean people can achieve their own liberty, Song says. And it has to come from the people themselves because the people are the best solution.
For many North Koreans, finding freedom is about creating a better future for themselves and for their families. And when it comes to the narrative of North Korea, despite the media images we see of nuclear threats, security issues, and repressive government plus the accompanying feelings of fear or defeat, we can’t forget that it all comes back to the people and collectively working toward good for those people.
“North Koreans are just like us,” Song says. “Their hopes and dreams for the future are very often the same as the hopes and dreams that we have for ourselves.”
We Need To Change the Narrative About North Korea
The neatly crafted narrative we hear about North Korea isn’t true — it’s not all nuclear weapons and military uniforms. There are plenty of ordinary North Koreans living behind that curtain.
This narrative is dangerous because it keeps the world from engaging with some of the greatest human rights injustices in the world today. The repression North Koreans experience is atrocious and deserves far more international attention and support than it’s received.
Hope for North Korea all starts with shifting the narrative.
Hope for North Korea all starts with shifting the narrative.
The North Korean people have shown extraordinary resilience and are uniquely positioned to create lasting change for the country because they now have more room for possibilities and perspectives than ever before. Their access to information is ever-growing, all weakening the regime.
Liberty in North Korea believes the North Korean people will achieve liberty in our lifetime. For those outside of North Korea, we can accelerate change by working to pivot the conversation toward the people.
For people and their ability to achieve their full potential, it’s always worth fighting.
Help North Koreans
You can take action and make a difference for North Koreans and North Korean refugees by donating to Liberty in North Korea.
A version of this story originally ran in Issue 04 of the Goodnewspaper in May 2018. The Goodnewspaper is our monthly print newspaper filled with good news.
You can join thousands of subscribers who get access to more exclusive stories like these, our private community space, a free inspiring poster, and so much more. Become a subscriber today.