Missile launches, national celebrations and tension with China that could be cut with a knife: North Korea is the talk of the town these days. But as the Day of the Sun is being celebrated above the 38th peninsula and the outside world gets a glance of the rows of the perfectly synchronized parading citizens, we miss what is happening behind the iron curtain. We miss the quiet, creeping steps of the people we cannot see. But they are, in fact, slowly changing society from within. Capitalism is coming to North Korea, and it is bringing trouble with it.
As the United States and other nations are debating whether or not new sanctions on Pyongyang are going to have an effect on its nuclear program, and as China is banning North Korean coal, the North Korean citizens are trying to survive. Some of those fortunate enough to escape to the South with their life and freedom intact see an opportunity to use investments to save their compatriots and at the same time form a change from within.
Although it is forbidden for South Korean citizens to trade with the North, Seoul turns a blind eye to the estimated $10 million that nearly 30,000 defectors in the South send to northern relatives yearly. And it is not just money that makes its way across the border: LED desk lamps, handbags, vitamins, hair dye and other products are being smuggled for citizens to sell semi-legally in the grey market, known as jangmadang.
While the West has Millennials, North Korea has the jangmadang generation. They grew up during and after the North Korean famine, which killed an estimate of 3 million people (although the numbers have been disputed). The jangmandang generation had to rely on themselves rather than the state. Faced with starvation food trumps ideology, and in fending for their lives North Koreans of the 90’s had no choice but to break the law.
As rations grew smaller and even non-existent at times due to the collapse of the system, the North Korean grey market, or jangmadang, was formed. The jangmadang was an elementary form of capitalism at odds with the hard-line communism and state controlled economy of North Korea. Realizing, however, that it could not provide for its people anymore, the government decided to tolerate most of the jangmadangs even after the famine had subsided.
How is it possible to have an open black market with obviously smuggled goods in a country where listening to K-Pop means risking capital punishment? The answer is simple: the police are starving too. Whereas the central government in Pyongyang is well-fed and clothed, local authorities are not as lucky. In the interest of getting a slice of the capitalist cake themselves, the local authorities can turn a blind eye for a humble 40 percent of the profit, and even sell the best spots at the market to the highest bidders.
And so the small, informal markets have grown into sophisticated, large operations. According to the most reliable estimates, around three-quarters of the North Korean population depends partly or exclusively on private market activity for survival. Despite some tolerance from Mr. Kim, there are still testimonies from defectors, such as human rights activist Yeonmi Park, stating that as the jangmadangs grow, the penalties for black market activities grow harsher.
The jangmadangs have made it easier to distribute banned technologies and media throughout the country, and if you know where to look, you can find digital watches, DVD players and even media from the outside world at the markets. In addition, the more conventional black market has increased the flow of outside information.
The hardcore black market typically supports North Korea’s GDP through drugs, trafficking and money laundering, but those networks have also created opportunities for distribution of foreign media. An impressive network of NGOs, defectors, smugglers, and bribable North Korean soldiers and officials form a bridge between the average Kim and the outside world through smuggled phones, laptops and data drives.
Combined with the decrease of state dependency, smuggled media has planted a seed for change in North Korea. As citizens are being exposed to outside media, they can perceive the gap between state propaganda and reality. They start to understand that the rest of the world is not as corrupt, poor, deprived and immoral as the regime makes it out to be. Seeing the totalitarianism of the Kim Jong-Un regime, it might seem unimportant that the repressed people start realizing their repression. But in a longer perspective, the digital flow may be an existential threat to the North Korean government.
Although he would never admit it, Kim Jong-Un is aware of the risk of public disturbance coming from consumption of outside information. Consuming foreign media is one of the worst crimes in North Korea, and under North Korean law, “listening to unauthorized foreign broadcasts and possessing dissident publications are considered ‘crimes against the state.’” Punishments for these crimes include hard labor, imprisonment and even the death penalty. According to South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo 80 people were executed for consuming foreign media on a single day in November 2013.
North Koreans are being executed because the regime is aware of the vulnerability of a system where people are fed a false reality. As Jieun Baek writes in his book North Korea’s Hidden Revolution:
“South Korea did not spark the Korean civil war in 1950, Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are not immortal, North Korea is not paradise on Earth, the United States are not seeking to start a was with North Korea, and there is absolutely no reason why 25 million North Koreans have to be living in the longest-lasting Communist experiment under an authoritarian dictatorship.”
The Emperor has no clothes, and it is only a matter of time before everybody knows it.