Mr. Blaine Harden, author of Escape from Camp 14, joined Summer Institute participants to talk about his accomplishments in the field of journalism as well as his expertise in East Asia. One student’s question and Mr. Harden’s consequent response particularly stood out to me, as I believe many of us have this on our minds.
The inquisitive student asked, “Will North Korean society reach a breaking point? Will it have an Arab spring?” Ever the realist, Mr. Harden explained that it’s a long shot for North Korean society to reject the Kim dynasty, but over the last 15 years two things in the country have been changing.
1) Information access- The percentage of people who have access to foreign media whether by radio or DVD has increased. The US has been using funds quietly to set up transmission towers around the North Korean border to broadcast counter-propaganda in Korean. These transmissions are able to reach anyone with a radio. Additionally, there has been a large increase in DVD smuggling, especially of South Korean movies and TV shows. Citizens are beginning to realize that there is in fact another way of life.
2) Economy- The collapse of the Soviet Union, which largely propped up North Korea as China is doing now, coincided with North Korea’s famine, which was one of the worst in history. The famine caused the command economy to drop and loosen its strong hold. Street markets sprang up to fill the Soviet Union’s void, selling merchandise smuggled in from China. Blaine noted that observers could see this in the way people dressed: over the last years, people now had new colorful coats that were previously unavailable. Mr. Harden quoted that “86% of all economic activity in North Korea takes place in these street markets,” the rest is constituted by trade with China. This shadow economy has led to an “alternative power structure” in which people are accumulating wealth and power.
However, one huge barrier remains. The lack of civil society is a hugely inhibiting factor in that there is first, no way for people to organize, and second, the predatory intelligence structure makes people too fearful to speak out. The social media that helped organize and spur the revolutions throughout the Arab world do not exist in North Korea. Facebook and Twitter do not exist: there is no way to organize a mass gathering. Meanwhile, the North Korean people have been born and bred to snitch on other citizens if they seem seditious. Although the state denies their existence, everyone knows about the concentration camps. People are too scared to organize.
While things are getting better, we shouldn’t hold our breath for a revolution inside North Korea.
By Netta Ascoli, Education Program Officer, World Affairs Council