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Podcast Transcript for 'North Korea's Market-Savvy Millennials'

A group of North Korean teenagers clap as they watch a performance in Pyongyang. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty)

A group of North Korean teenagers clap as they watch a performance in Pyongyang. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty)

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Eric Fish: Whenever you hear news about North Korea these days, it usually sounds something like this.

CNN: Pyongyang claiming that they have successfully tested a nuclear warhead.

CNN: North Korea's missile test was of a probable intercontinental ballistic missile.

Al Jazeera: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watched as his military put on a large parade.

CNN: Five years into his rule it is clear that he holds absolute power over this country. Relaxed, confident, appearing firmly in control.

Eric Fish: But buried behind these headlines, there’s another major story unfolding in the country that could be just as consequential. It starts more than two decades ago.

Hyeonseo Lee: In my most vivid memory from the famine, when I saw the lifeless woman lying on the street while her emaciated child in her arms look at her mother’s face hopelessly. I was so sad and I placed some money to the child's lap but I knew it wouldn't last.

Eric Fish: That’s Hyeonseo Lee, who was born and raised in North Korea before escaping 1997. At this Asia Society Houston event, she describes the catastrophic famine known as the Arduous March that hit the country in the mid-1990s when she was a young girl.

Hyeonseo Lee: At the time I still didn't know that the reason we were suffering was because of our government failed the system, but I strongly believed the regime's propaganda that the only reason we were suffering was because of American sanctions.

Eric Fish: When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it cut off food aid and trade concessions for subsidized oil and fertilizer that had propped up North Korean agriculture. That was compounded by floods and rampant corruption and hoarding within the government-run food distribution system. Several hundred thousand people — perhaps even a few million — starved to death. Still, many North Koreans made no connection between their plight and their political system. With the country so closed to outside information, few realized how big the gap between their lives and those of the people in neighboring countries had become. But for Lee, that changed when her family — which lived near the Chinese border — got a TV that was able to pick up signals from China.

Hyeonseo Lee: It's illegal in North Korea watching any foreign media contents. You can be even publicly executed for watching. So every night I kept in my room and blocked windows with thick extra blankets to prevent light and I saw the TV and the Chinese TV completely transformed my mind. China looked much more open and economically developed than my country, so I had a perfect reason to doubt that my country is not the best in the world.

Eric Fish: This interaction with foreign entertainment in the mid-1990s, while rare at the time, was a preview of things to come. The great famine was one of the most pivotal events in North Korean history. But some of its most profound effects are playing out today — a generation later — among North Korean millennials who came of age during its aftermath.

Jieun Baek: This is a very un-PC thing to say but a lot of people will say the famine, which was absolutely horrific, was the worst and the best thing that happened to North Korea.

Sokeel Park: It's really important to recognize that the system is changing from within and this is one of the most interesting and important parts of the issue in my eyes — maybe much more important in the long run frankly than the security situation that gets all of the attention.

Eric Fish: In today’s episode, we’ll look beyond the missile crisis at how private enterprise and access to foreign information rose from the ashes of North Korea’s great famine, and how that’s altered the behavior of young North Koreans in a way that might be changing the country. I’m Eric Fish and this is Asia In-Depth.

Jieun Baek: In this period when the public distribution system broke down, the government was no longer able to support their population, we saw tiny businesses if you will spring out of North Korea.

Eric Fish: That’s Oxford University’s Jieun Baek, who did extensive interviews with defectors for her book North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society. She was speaking at the Asia Society event in Houston.

Jieun Baek: This is a very un-PC thing to say but a lot of people will say the famine, which as absolutely horrific, was the worst and the best thing that happened to North Korea. Worst is obvious because the human consequences were just unparalleled. However, best because that's what it took for individual citizens to look away from the government out of sheer necessity to survive and start to turn to themselves, and that, out of just physical experience, people realized that they couldn't depend on the government anymore. Their narrative was not real.

Eric Fish: Some converted quickly to private enterprise, and for this reason, North Koreans have been referred to as native capitalists.

Jieun Baek: Capitalists just sprang out of socialist thin air and figured out how to provide goods and services — watch repairs, glasses repairs, gum — whatever they can to start supporting themselves and turn to each other to support their households. Fast forward a couple of years, these small businesses evolved into markets like this that we see now.

Eric Fish: What began as small-scale informal trading in the wake of the famine has over the past two decades grown into a sophisticated patchwork including hundreds of marketplaces across the country. They’re known jangmadang, literally, market grounds. They’re still technically illegal in most cases. Yet they often have hundreds of market stalls selling everything from food and clothing to cosmetics and entertainment products. In the past, the North Korean government has tried to crack down on this obvious exercise in capitalism. Most notably, in 2009 it created a new currency and placed limits on how much of the old notes could be traded in. Those who had accumulated wealth in the markets saw most of their savings become worthless. But reports emerged of rare public protests in response to the move, and at least one riot. The government subsequently backpedaled on the policy, and has allowed the markets to flourish since. Estimates now put the number of jangmadang across the country at around 400 to 700, with upwards of three-quarters of the population depending on private markets for survival.

Sokeel Park: I think that the cat is out of the bag in terms of this new economic reality

Eric Fish: That’s Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at the non-profit group Liberty in North Korea, which aides North Korean refugees. He’s also director of the forthcoming documentary The Jangmadang Generation.

Sokeel Park: And this is a fairly long-term trend at this point over the past 15 or even 20 years and the same thing on the changing information environment as well. They can't turn the clock back to zero.

Eric Fish: Trade with China — both legal and illicit — has fueled the jangmadang markets. Between 2000 and 2015, trade volume between the two countries increased more than tenfold and currently makes up more than 90 percent of North Korea’s total foreign trade. It’s what the U.S. and other countries are trying to stop to punish North Korea. For the North Korean people, this enrichment has mostly been a good thing. And Park explains that it’s also yielded a so-called Jangmadang Generation of youth who have developed very different attitudes from their parents.

Sokeel Park: They basically have little or even no memory of being dependent on the state, and their childhood and teenage years and even early adulthood was all about trying to live for themselves, maybe working with their family or their friends in different types of private enterprise coming up against government regulations and constraints and so having that friction. And then the other part apart from the economy is the foreign media piece, because the late 90s — especially into the 2000s — was when foreign information and media started coming in across the border from China in a much more significant way. So this is the generation that also had access to foreign media from an early age and that really interacting with the way that they saw the world and the kind of questions they asked about their own situation inside the country.

Eric Fish: In addition to trade with China, technological development has facilitated the infiltration of foreign media like music and films into North Korea. In the early 2000s, DVDs started making it easier to smuggle media in, and today even smaller USB drives and SD cards can carry hours and hours of such entertainment. These materials are smuggled in by North Korean entrepreneurs and Chinese middlemen, as well as sent in by activists and NGOs through a variety of methods, including balloons released into the country. And people are watching them. In her interviews Jieun Baek asked defectors to estimate the percentage of people back in their hometowns who have access to foreign media. She says most now guess around 70 to 80 percent. And these people risk a lot by watching these materials, including fines, prison, and in some cases even execution. Though more often, they can get off by paying a bribe.

Jieun Baek: In terms of information crimes, the punishment has become more stringent. I mean not everyone gets carted away because consumption of foreign information has become so rampant. Intelligence officers who are trained to do random sweeps and dole out sentences for people who are caught, they themselves watch foreign information and it's a known fact because they have defected and they’ve shared that in their testimonies as well. But punishments have become higher, it’s true, and however, interestingly, from what outside researchers can gather, the consumption levels have also increased and that just speaks to, despite the risks and executions that Ms. Lee has described, that is a consequence of information crimes. The curiosity to learn about what exists outside of North Korea is unquenchable. If execution can't quench that curiosity I have no idea what will.

Eric Fish: So what is it that they want to watch and listen to? It turns out, just about anything you can imagine. There are movies and TV shows from Hollywood, Europe, and China. There are PBS documentaries, Japanese pornography, and videos condemning the Kim family and North Korean government. But what seems to be the most popular is what’s loved throughout Asia: South Korean soap operas and K-pop music. The late 1990s gave rise to the so-called Korean Wave, when South Korean entertainment began to sweep Asia and even gain a degree of global popularity. This coincided with the time that foreign media really began to infiltrate North Korea. Despite the fact that watching South Korean materials tends to carry stiffer punishments than media from China or other countries, demand has only grown. North Koreans are taught that South Koreans are suffering and constantly exploited by their American puppet masters. But seeing these videos’ high production values, and seeing real life images of the highly developed South, can spark immense curiosity. Hyeonseo Lee says that this is actually far more powerful in opening North Korean minds than political materials.

Hyeonseo Lee: Still they are the most brainwashed human beings on this planet. So if I tell them how North Korean dictator is bad or how they are suffering, they can't perceive it as it is, because that was my experience and other defectors' experience. So the best thing is, instead of let them know or send them messages or tell them, use visual contents — which is the dramas, South Korean dramas, or Hollywood movies are the best. No words are needed. So sending those information into North Korea, they get that themselves.

Sokeel Park: In terms of your more straight up propaganda...

Eric Fish: Sokeel Park again.

Sokeel Park: If it's explicitly designed to criticize the Kim leadership in a blunt and simple way, and that's been you know the history of some of the propaganda even from the South Korean government over the decades — just kind of criticizing the opposite system in a simple way — that's not necessarily the most effective thing I think and sometimes it may even backfire. Because if you get into core things like that, people can actually react against it. There's been some attention among psychologists recently, even in the West in political discourse, where if you criticize people's core beliefs then they actually, there's a backfire effect and they actually then hold on to those beliefs more strongly. Those kind of things can happen in North Korea as well as in the West. Alongside that you have the narrative in North Korea that this foreign media is all about undermining our socialist revolution and trying to break the loyalty within our system and so on.

Eric Fish: He says that the plots of South Korean dramas and films — which tend to center around romance and personal relationships — are a stark contrast to state-glorifying North Korean entertainment, and much more relatable to young people. But it’s not necessarily the plot that leaves the biggest impression.

Sokeel Park: A lot of the time it's in the background of these films seeing how many bridges there are across the Han river in Seoul and seeing all of the skyscrapers in the background of these movies and how many cars there are and these kinds of things so really showing rather than telling. And so when these South Korean films and television programs and Chinese films and even some American movies and so on were being smuggled into the country, that was a wake up, not just to the economic development in South Korea, what looks like is an amazing amount of wealth and opportunity and so on, in the background of South Korean movies, but also just the way South Korean women are holding themselves and the clothes that they wear and all of the changing fashions that they have and a lot of the time the stories themselves that North Koreans are watching are very interesting to them but a lot of the time they're soaking up a lot in the background as well. The person in the background there has yellow hair even though they’re Korean, that person has light brown hair. They're dying it. And then these products, even some of these technologies, there are believe it or not there are plastic surgeries happening in North Korea, partially as a result of these kind of things as well.

Eric Fish: He says that there's now even a symbiotic relationship between foreign media, fashion, and the jangmadang markets.

Sokeel Park: South Korean fashion changes all the time because of whatever the hot actors and actresses are wearing in the most recent South Korean dramas and so on. It works essentially in the same way in North Korea but obviously in a more constrained way, and North Korean market traders use that as well. They actually may even actively seed kind of trends and try and stimulate demand for a new product that maybe they have access to that other traders don't have access to. So there definitely is this interaction between the changing information environment and the changing market economy environment where they basically feed each other.

Eric Fish: When young people in a strictly conformist society begin developing a longing for individualism and self-expression through avenues like fashion, it can have some surprising results.

Sokeel Park: It's also providing something that people now want to do but the authorities are still trying to hold them back from. So it's a new desire that’s coming up against friction with the system, so it's a new source of discontent if you like. And it’s also seen as something very harmless. It’s an individual appearance at the end of the day. So a lot of people will feel that the government has very low legitimacy in trying to stop those kinds of things. And so whilst it might sound strange or even trivial to us in the West, some North Korean defectors have generally said, especially some of the young female defectors, have said that the fashion restrictions and that desire for that kind of self expression was actually one of the main motivating reasons for them leaving North Korea, especially in more recent years. So all of these things are kind of contributing, and not just in a superficial way, but in a significant way.

Eric Fish: But fashion may be just tip of the iceberg of the changes being sparked by the jangmadang. These markets have also been a source of empowerment for women in a very patriarchal society. While most men were still forced to go to their state-assigned jobs for little or no pay, women were more easily able to set up shop in the markets and make exponentially more money than their husbands could, which gave them more power and decision-making authority in the household. Some female defectors have also reported being influenced by foreign entertainment and the depiction of heroines who stand up to chauvinistic men and refuse to be subservient.

Jieun Baek: So we're observing small social and cultural changes.

Eric Fish: That’s Jieun Baek.

Jieun Baek: And I argue that this active flow of goods and information coming into North Korea is now playing a central role in changing the social consciousness of North Korean citizens and it's sparking small but irreversible changes across this country.

Eric Fish: She says some of these changes include young people engaging in more romantic dating rituals, public displays of affection like hand-holding, and using South Korean slang, even to irreverently discuss leader Kim Jong Un. All of these things would have been unthinkable for older generations.

Jieun Baek: In addition to the social and cultural observations, we're witnessing young North Korean people take more risk than ever before to be more entrepreneurial with their thinking and their market activities. They’re covering for each other, they're not snitching on each other as the previous generation did, and they're trying to protect one another in order to watch what they want, drive a profit from the market activities, and to serve their own interest, which is a powerful difference from the previous generation where the focus was wholly on serving the regime's interest.

Hyeonseo Lee: One of the most important things as North Korean we have to learn is that we cannot trust anyone.

Eric Fish: That’s Hyeonseo Lee, describing the atmosphere when she lived in North Korea in the 1990s.

Hyeonseo Lee: Friends, classmates, neighbors are forced to criticize each other and spy on each other. So when I was young my mom used to train me not to say anything bad about the government or not to repeat any words I heard at home. She used to say, "The walls have ears and the fields have eyes." Also speaking out against the regime was unthinkable.

Eric Fish: Sokeel Park says that, while overtly criticizing North Korean leaders — even in private conversations — is still uncommon, it’s no longer unthinkable. This, he thinks, again has to do with the influx of foreign media.

Sokeel Park: It's entertainment and escapism, but beyond that there are a lot of things people can learn and then there's also especially in the Jangmadang Generation, especially the youth in some of these biggest cities, people are even gathering to watch South Korean films and so on together, even though that is a very risky behavior, and so it becomes kind of a small group level, a collective subversive behavior that can then can lead to building up trust amongst people. If people have that together, then we've all done that together, nobody can report the other person because they'll all be screwed essentially. And that means that then with that trust, people can start to have some interesting conversations about why is South Korea like that, why are we so behind by comparison? What's happening with our system? Why are our leaders so scared of opening up and changing the system and allowing just a more flourishing capitalist economy and so on. And even going to the point of talking about escaping North Korea, discussing that with their friends, talking about what would it be like to try to get to South Korea, and even criticizing the leadership and so on. These are all kind of conversations that we've heard happening inside the country from recent defectors and these kinds of conversations we weren't hearing about that 10 years ago or so. It's happening in a different way now and to a different level.

Eric Fish: Baek says though that asking fundamental questions about North Korea’s leaders and forming full-fledged doubts about the political system is still the exception among those who are exposed to foreign media, rather than the rule.

Jieun Baek: I asked lots of my interviewees and just friends from North Korea, if so many people illegally watch foreign information and it's so antithetical to what the government teaches its citizens, how could one either decide to stay or at the very least how can one be ok with living under such an unjust system? Someone answered it to me like this: Ok let's take a Christian, and you can apply a Jewish person, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, let's say a Christian and this person believes in God, the Trinity, the church, go to church every Sunday, try to live a pretty good life, but once in awhile, or maybe not that once in awhile, they drink, they curse, they say things they shouldn't be saying. But they sin, they break the Biblical rules within the parameters of their faith. They may break church rules without ever doubting their faith in God. Similarly, a lot of North Koreans, not all, many of them may sin against the country by watching information that's pretty antithetical to the regime, but that may happen within the parameters of their skeletal faith in the system. And so the cognitive dissonance that people experience when having repeat exposure to foreign information is messy, confusing, it's sometimes very offensive, but also it's exciting and it's no doubt the foreign information plants seeds of doubt in people's minds that will grow over time.

Eric Fish: The personality cult developed around Kim Il Sung and his heirs, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, is reinforced in every facet of North Korean society. It’s such that many even believe these leaders have supernatural powers, like being able to read the minds of their subjects. So it seems unlikely that overwhelming devotion to the Kim family will abate anytime soon. Still, one of the other implications of the great famine was that many children started going to school less, or not at all. This is the venue where some of the most substantial political indoctrination takes place. So they ended up spending more of their childhoods in the markets exposed to a capitalist reality rather than a socialist fantasy, and as such, they tend to see the government more as an extractor than a provider of livelihood to the public. Anecdotally, many defectors even say reverence for the Kim family has been waning with each generation and each new leader to the point that Kim Jong Un is far less respected than his grandfather. But he still sits atop the world’s most totalitarian police state, that growing nuclear capability, and he faces no known public dissidents or organized resistance. Park says that it would be a fool’s errand to draw any conclusions about what these changes in North Korean society will translate to politically in the future. It’s impossible enough to predict political outcomes in open Western democracies. But these changes are important to take into account.

Sokeel Park: Overall, if we look at these multiple trends in the economy, in the information environment, in the generational change, even in, not necessarily civil society at this point, but some of the conditions for more horizontal linkages and so on, all of these trends do seem to be happening and moving in a certain direction which is upwards and which is against the direction of the government's totalitarian control. But it's very hard to talk about timelines or anything like that, or even to say that a certain outcome is inevitable. The government is also sensitive and reflexive, and even in some ways accommodating to some of these changes. So who knows basically. It may be that the government is able to go with these changes or it may be that at some point there's a system failure, but either way I think that it's really important to recognize that the system is changing from within and this is one of the most interesting and important parts of the issue in my eyes. Maybe much more important in the long run frankly than the security situation that gets all of the attention.

Eric Fish: In recent years, the international community has been particularly focused on North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs, which we talk about more in an earlier episode called “North Korea Goes Ballistic.” Proposed measures for dealing with the issue include targeted sanctions and calls on all nations — especially China — to choke off North Korea economically. There are increasingly even calls for surgical or full-scale military strikes. But usually missing from these debates is what implications various measures would have for the people of North Korea, and the societal changes unfolding at the ground level. For instance, complete economic isolation would likely have major implications for the jangmadang markets.

Sokeel Park: if you cut the number of North Koreans going to China or other countries, whether as traders or as workers overseas, and if you cut down the level of trade, then I think you do cut down channels for information and ideas to go back into North Korea. So there is that tradeoff. I don't think you can cut it off completely. Even if the Chinese authorities wanted to completely cut off trade, which I don't think that they will or that they do want to but hypothetically if we're playing God, even if they wanted to, then trade would still happen, smuggling would still happen, foreign information and media will still get into North Korea, but to a lesser degree. So that, I think that is a relevant question for strategies to North Korea and what people are trying to sanction and what's the best way to engage economically both from the Chinese side but from the South Korean side as well.

Eric Fish: He says that the economic growth sparked by the markets, and the resulting shifting values and influx of foreign media, are becoming major concerns of the North Korean government. It’s become a cat and mouse game, where authorities are constantly trying to develop technological barriers to the information trade and making examples of those who are caught perpetuating it.

Sokeel Park: Nonetheless, the demand is still there and they can't go into people's minds and take out the information and awareness that's already been put in there. So in the long term, again this trend, from a very low baseline is still moving in a positive direction that does continue to kind of force the North Korean government to ask more difficult questions and to accommodate basically a changing society beneath them, including, I think one of the most important parts of that is basically one way or another having to have some economic development to show to the people in a real way.

Eric Fish: He closed by reiterating that people interested in North Korea shouldn’t necessarily focus on the headlines that tend to dominate the news cycle about the country.

Sokeel Park: There's so much attention on Kim Jong Un and missiles and I think even more so somehow in 2017 it's become even more that North Korea is a country that shoots missiles in the international public kind of consciousness. And so we're trying to rebalance that with, well that's part of it, but North Korea is a society of 24 million people. They face some of the most incredible challenges in the world, but also they are driving change from within the country and there is hope on the issue if we look at it from the people level.

Eric Fish: Thanks for listening. Before we let you go we’d like to mention that we have a new podcast series in the Asia Society lineup. It’s called Asia Abridged, where we choose the most memorable moments from Asia Society’s acclaimed programs delivered in 15 minutes or less. And in case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve renamed this podcast Asia In-depth, where we’ll continue to give deep narrative explorations of important issues in the Asia Pacific. If you want to hear more episodes of this podcast or check out the new one, you can go to asiasociety.org/podcast or subscribe on iTunes. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter @AsiaSociety, where we’d also love to hear your feedback and ideas for future episodes. Those soundbites we played earlier, in order of appearance, were from CNN, Al Jazeera, James Bond, Little Mermaid, Titanic, Journey to the West, Terminator, National Geographic, Friends, Modern Family, "Bubble Pop" by Hyuna, Heart Strings, and "Gee" by Girls Generation. Our music is by Thiri Maung Maung and his ensemble Shwe Man Thabin Zapway. They were performing live at Asia Society New York as part of a season of Myanmar. I’m Eric Fish and we’ll see you next time on Asia In-depth