The North Korean state is an anomaly in the world today, a throwback to some of the 20th century’s most egregious authoritarian regimes, says Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea, an NGO that works with North Korean refugees.
The regime prevents any political dissent through collective punishment in political prison camps for not just the offending individual, but also their whole family, he writes for The Atlantic. This means there are no known dissidents or human rights activists inside the country; no North Korean Aung San Suu Kyis or Liu Xiabos, and therefore no leaders for alternative domestic political forces.
But wait, there’s hope.
We have identified six reasons why the North Korean people will drive a transformation of their country in our lifetime.
1) Economic Divergence
….Just 30 years ago, China was poorer than North Korea; now North Koreans who manage to travel to China (or even just look across the river) are amazed at the bright lights and development they see there. As the rest of the region races ahead, the regime’s strategy of obstinately denying change will become incrementally more difficult, especially as this economic discrepancy becomes increasingly obvious to the people.
2) Grassroots Glasnost
The regime’s information blockade is crumbling, and increasing numbers of refugees report watching South Korean dramas and Hollywood (and even Bollywood) movies that are smuggled in on DVDs and USBs from China. There is also a growing number of Chinese cell phones that are used in border regions to call contacts in China and South Korea. …..
The spread of new technologies and information cannot be stopped, and as the information flows increase the regime will be faced with a simple choice: either align their narrative about their country closer to reality, or watch as their traditional narrative becomes increasingly hollow and powerless.
3) Explosion of Corruption
North Koreans consistently tell us that to get ahead or even just survive in North Korea, you have to break the regime’s rules, and that money enables all of those rules to be broken. Corruption is therefore steadily eroding the regime’s control and authority over society, and there is no effective way to rein this in unless the system itself changes.
4) Refugees Bridging Back Into North Korea
An estimated 50 percent of resettled refugees maintain contact with their families back inside through illicit channels and illegal Chinese cell phones. This provides a route for information about the outside world, which is then spread around by word of mouth. Perhaps even more importantly, refugees are sending money back to their North Korean relatives through broker networks. An estimated $10-15 million is being sent each year, enabling family members to bribe security officials, protect themselves, and even invest in entrepreneurial business activity or smuggling operations. Refugees’ remittances are fueling the grassroots economy, speeding up the erosion of regime power, and increasing the bottom-up forces for change.
5) Jangmadang (Market) Generation
North Koreans born in the 1980s and 1990s have no personal memory of the days under Kim Il Sung, when a functioning state-socialist system actually provided for the people and there was little reason to doubt the official Juche ideology. North Korean millennials grew up in an era characterized by marketization and self-interest, with the regime seeming like more of an obstruction than a provider.
The regime’s old methods of control through indoctrination and micro-management may even be counterproductive for some of these young North Koreans. And it is only a matter of time before the jangmadang generation makes up the majority of society.
6) Bonds Between the People
Lastly, a result of many of these changes — particularly marketization and information flows — is that the North Korean people are more connected to each other than ever before, and they increasingly depend on each other more than they do the regime. This is significant because the state has historically relied on the isolation, atomization, and disempowerment of the North Korean people by instilling a culture of fear and distrust among the citizenry. ………..When the people feel more loyalty to each other than to the party, and are more connected to each other, collective empowerment and the bottom-up pressure for change will gradually become a greater force.
It is impossible to predict the precise pathway or timeline for change in any society, let alone one with the research challenges of North Korea. …What we can be sure of though is that these trends of empowerment are irreversible, and they mean that in the long term, change in North Korea is inevitable.
This is an extract from a longer article. RTWT