Signs of Change in North Korea

A standout group from four continents gathered on June 3 for the Asia Society Northern California conference “North Korea: What Can the International Community Do?” Many panelists were surprisingly optimistic and pointed to signs of change – inchoate, limited, but hopeful – inside the country. Katharina Zellweger, the former North Korea country director for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation who lived in Pyongyang for six years, referred to them as “the five M’s”: the emergence of private markets, the partial spread of mobile telephones, more motorcars on the street, signs of middle class development, at least in Pyongyang, and the changing mindsets of the North Korean people.

Panelists attributed this change primarily to the North Korean people themselves, not the international community and certainly not, in any positive ways, the North Korean government. As such, it has drawn little attention from analysts. As panelist Hannah Song of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) said, the international dialogue about North Korea is “so heavily politicized and securitized” that it largely ignores the stories of ordinary people and their everyday lives – exactly where real change is happening. These stories of North Korea, told by defectors, underground “citizen journalists,” satellite footage, even official statistics, provide powerful insight, panelists said, into a country so often dismissed as unknowable.

Not all of these changes have been positive. The black market so essential to everyday survival is also worsening corruption and income inequality that Michael Kirby, chair of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK, said is even wider than in China. Asked why he finally left the country, defector Lee Seong Min said he saw corruption “from bottom to top.” He had made thousands of dollars for his family as a black-market smuggler, but decided that he “couldn’t see any future in this.” He also said that foreign videos like South Korean soap operas had a huge impact, precisely because they were not propaganda pieces.

The touchstone of the conference, and perhaps a turning point in the debate over North Korea, was the landmark U.N. report authored by Kirby released in March on human rights in that country. The findings of the report – forced starvation, fatal beatings, gathering children to watch public executions – were sadly familiar, but the report’s mandate was not: it was the first concerted effort by the international community to build a body of evidence on human rights conditions and has given new life to international calls for reform. Of course, these calls continue to face strong opposition from not only the North Korean government, but also its closest ally China. Kirby recounted that North Korean diplomats referred to the defectors who gave testimony to the Commission as “human scum”. The North Korean regime remains heavy handed and oppressive at home and suspicious, even paranoid, about outsiders. The lives of North Koreans, Kirby added, continue to be marked by “fear, repression, and indoctrination.”

In terms of international leverage over the North, panelists were mixed on the virtues of engagement – “the more the better” said Zellweger, while Kirby was far more critical. They were also divided on the efficacy of sanctions, with Ambassador Chun Yungwoo of South Korea describing current sanctions as “toothless” and in need of significant tightening and Zellweger saying they cause too much pain to ordinary North Koreans. All told, “there is no silver bullet,” said Robert King, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights. He said we must pursue many courses in attempting to bring change to the North, some of them contradictory, and we cannot expect any one thing to work. On human rights, Kirby offered an eloquent defense for pursuing their protection absolutely, whatever the North Korean response. Protecting them is at the core of the U.N. charter, and they mustn’t be minimized or traded away at the negotiating table.

Other speakers in the standing-room-only event included U.C. Berkeley sociologist Tom Gold and the Asia Society’s own Tom Nagorski.

The event was co-presented with the World Affairs Council of Northern California.

Full Video for Panel 1:

Full Video for Panel 2: