The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has survived war and famine. Its economy has surmounted foreign economic sanctions and self-imposed isolation. The DPRK features the world’s only communist monarchy amid vast technological, social, economic, and political change.
The twenty-seven-year-old Kim Jong-un faced doubts about his likely survival after he succeeded his father in 2011. However, Kim’s willingness to execute liberally, apparently sometimes employing anti-aircraft guns, helped him consolidate power. His regime’s continued stability after cutting off North Korea even from China in order to limit coronavirus infections suggested that he could overcome most any challenge.
Yet once seemingly determined on both economic reform and diplomatic engagement, he turned sharply inward after the failure of the 2019 summit with former President Donald Trump. The ongoing pandemic only reinforced the walls built by the Kim dynasty around the DPRK. Kim acknowledged that he had not been able to deliver the kind of economic benefits to his people as he’d wished and warned them to prepare for an “arduous march,” which brought to mind the deadly famine of a quarter century ago.
One of North Korea’s most striking changes from its early years was the increasing porousness of its border with China. Private markets developed in the 1990s when the Soviet Union, along with its aid, disappeared and famine overwhelmed the country, leaving Pyongyang unable to feed its people. Trade became a means of survival for many North Koreans.
This patch of unabashed capitalism persisted even after the famine eased. “The growth of markets is the single most significant socioeconomic development to occur in North Korea over the last 20 years,” according to Victor Cha and Lisa Collins of CSIS.
Goods, as well as refugees and defectors, increasingly crossed the border. These flows continued even after killer starvation eased. With the border no longer hermetically sealed, South Korean culture made its appearance in the DPRK, aided by technology. North Koreans went from CDs and DVDs to flash drives and even smaller SD cards. The newer media carried more information and, perhaps even more important, were more concealable.
The newer variants even began to be described as “nose cards.” “Why do we call it [a] nose card? Well, if somebody wants to search your body whether you have any USBs or whatever, the boys instantly take it out and they put it in their nose,” said Thae Yong-ho who defected when deputy chief of mission at North Korea’s embassy in the United Kingdom. Equally important, as Pyongyang attempted to crack down on access to information, people became more creative. Not only are devices encrypted, but they delete information if the incorrect password is entered.
Defectors report that most North Koreans, including children of government officials, have seen South Korean movies, TV programs, and K-pop. The impact has been huge, exposing much of the population to the world that exists beyond their nation’s borders. Also, they learned that their government lied to them.
“North Korean state propaganda had long described South Korea as a living hell crawling with beggars,” the New York Times reported. “Through the K-dramas, first smuggled on tapes and CDs, young North Koreans learned that while they struggled to find enough food to eat during a famine, people in the South were going on diets to lose weight.” Defectors noted that while they were initially skeptical of what they saw as fiction produced in a studio they were amazed and convinced when Seoul and other cities were shown.
Despite the confident contempt with which the Kim regime has treated the Republic of Korea, the DPRK’s Supreme Leader has demonstrated his increasing fear of South Korean culture. In December the North trebled the penalty for possessing or watching materials from the ROK to fifteen years. Smugglers and sellers and face death. That’s not all. If a North Korean is found to “speak, write or sing in South Korean style,” he or she faces two years of hard labor.
These are not just theoretical penalties. A recent report from the North cited a case when a classmate discovered “three students cutting their hair like K-pop idols, hemming their pants above their ankles, and singing along to music videos of South Korean songs such as ‘Man’ by singer Na Hoon-a. The students were then reported to the Ministry of State Security.” They were sent to a labor camp for “re-education.” Another six teenagers were sentenced to five years at a re-education camp after being “found guilty of watching South Korean films and television series over the past year and sharing them with classmates.”
To enforce the law the North has its equivalent of the religious police in fundamentalist Muslim societies such as Saudi Arabia. People are stopped on the street. Homes are raided. Informants are rewarded. And violators are imprisoned, even sometimes executed.
The level of concern is evident from Kim’s personal involvement. Although his older brother has been spied on at Western rock concerts, Kim denounced K-pop as a “vicious cancer.” He targeted kids’ “attire, hairstyles, speeches, behaviors.” Kim even complained how North Koreans were greeting one another, adopting the more familiar manner of South Korea. Official media has denounced ROK entertainment as anti-socialist and, most important, threatening to make the DPRK “crumble like a damp wall.”
This campaign increased after Kim’s failure to make a deal with Trump and win sanctions relief. Kim had proudly declared to his people that the nuclear deterrent was complete and he would hence concentrate on economic development. He highlighted his summits with Trump and even showed his visit to highly developed Singapore.
However, U.S. and UN sanctions remained and the coronavirus swept around the world. Although the DPRK had new and more weapons to parade through Pyongyang, even the regime elite living there suffered economically as foreign goods disappeared from store shelves and prices rose. As the prospect of a better future recedes, widespread knowledge of South Korea’s dramatically better present grows more threatening to the North.
Although a popular uprising seems ever unlikely, given the difficulty of organizing resistance, regime legitimacy is diminishing. Among the young belief in the old DPRK verities about Juche, socialism, Kim Il-sung as eternal president, the sacred Kim bloodline, and more is being wiped out by just a few forbidden glimpses of the reality outside North Korea.
Resealing the border is extremely difficult, if not impossible, even with tougher enforcement. The Daily NK’s Jong So-yong reported: “The Ministry of State Security asked the students what part of the [K-pop] songs had tempted them to the point [that they would risk arrest]. The teenagers responded that the lyrics, especially the part where the artist sang about ‘[living] like a man and [going/dying] like a man,’ had touched their hearts. News of the conversation spread like wildfire around the community through the families of the MSS officers that had interrogated them, and has only stoked further curiosity among locals about South Korean music.” If even those doing the enforcing no longer believe, then regime stability will erode and internal conflict will grow more likely.
Seoul should wield this prospect as a weapon. If Kim was responsive to the Moon government’s manifold outreach efforts, it might make sense to hold in abeyance efforts to undermine the North Korean system. However, after the initial summit meetings between Kim and Moon Jae-in, Pyongyang has treated the South and its leadership with disdain. The insults of Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, have been particularly noteworthy, as was last year’s destruction of the liaison building constructed by the ROK.
Although Moon correctly urged the Biden administration to try to pick up from the Trump administration with the Singapore declaration—negotiation is the only hope for even restraining, let alone ending, DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs—the ROK should not remain passive when those efforts flounder. If Pyongyang seems intent on becoming an ever better armed adversary,then the South should respond in kind. That means not only arming itself to deter North Korean attack, but probing Pyongyang for weak spots and demonstrating a willingness to undermine the Kim dynasty.
The start would be easy: repeal the misguided prohibition on balloon launches into North Korea. The Kim regime’s hysterical response to past efforts demonstrates its fear of the prospect of even random bits of information falling into the hands of North Korea. That is not enough, however. Seoul, like Washington, could use a bit of bipartisanship. Moon should put together a working group, including opposition policymakers and thinkers, to discuss how best to get information into the hands of North Koreans, especially the young.
Not the South’s version of political propaganda—people in the North already are gorged with overtly self-serving political appeals—but pleasing manifestations of South Korean and global culture. Show people in the North how they have been lied to. Include examples of international cooperation around the world. Add calls by young South Koreans for meeting, talking, and coming together. Make the point that the Korean Peninsula’s future should be decided not by an arbitrary few in the capitals of the two nations but by two peoples.