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Book Review: North Korea’s Hidden Revolution – Jieun Baek

Ford, G. (2017). “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution” by Jieun Baek, Asian Review of Books, 17 May.

North Korea is changing. Pyongyang is a dynamic city where the last decade has seen the skyline transformed at the behest of Kim Jong Un with lines of new tower blocks and colour painted across his father and grandfather’s monochrome urban landscape. The city’s ambience and the lives of those with money has been transformed with funfairs, and water parks, shopping centres, coffee bars, beer festivals and package holidays. Science is king with new museums and centers devoted to natural history, technology and weaponry. Outside in the countryside change comes slowly, while in the Northeast “rust belt” industrial revival is even slower. They are the source of the economic migrants fleeing for a better life in the South.

One result was the emergence of a “Defector Industry” on the borderlands between North Korea and China where victims are preyed on for cash, creed and sometimes both. It was no accident the Seoul slashed the bounty available to newly arrived North Koreans by half a few years ago as the practice began to grow of the consecutive defections by chains of family members: the dividend for the first paid for the second and so ad infinitum until halted by the exhaustion of family or credit. The contrasting responses to slamming the door on the industrial scale flight from ISIS and Assad and the welcome this craft exodus from the North gets in the West may be because few of the latter will end up there.

One of the other results is an increasing number of North Koreans available for interview as the raw material for books. One of the most recent, North Korea’s Hidden Revolution, is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Although it promises much with its bold subtitle, “How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society”, it delivers rather less than other, earlier books based on “defector” interviews such as Daniel Tudor and James Pearson’s North Korea Confidential. The interviews in this new book often contain retold tales standing alone with little analysis. They frequently contradict each other and are internally inconsistent; they are also at times frustratingly inaccurate—hardly surprising in the circumstances but at least worthy of note and explanation—yet are engagingly mundane. The one consistent thread is that the large majority of those leaving the North are as much “defectors” as those participating in the mass migration from Syria and its neighbors to the EU and Germany. 76-84% of all defectors are from the North’s two border provinces with China.

North Korea’s Hidden Revolution nevertheless provides some useful insights. The majority of those who fled the North lie low. In the South, a Northern accent or evidence of Northern origin invites ostracism and discrimination. The minority turn it into a cause and career with a surfeit of NGOs drowning in an alphabet soup of initials running competing campaigns and a cacophony of radio stations, smuggling in missionaries, money and USB sticks loaded with the Bible, porn or South Korean “soaps” and bringing out reports and more refugees. Japanese porn is more popular than the Bible. Out of this competitive whirlwind a few emerge as serious players. Others like “The North Korean People’s Liberation Front” dressing in uniforms almost identical to those of North Korea’s own Special Forces and paired with with dark sunglasses could have stepped straight out of the set of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”.

The North is an arbitrary society. The rules are all encompassing. What is not allowed is forbidden. Thus everyone breaks the law including the police. The Party hierarchy shares with the late Sir Robert Mark, a former London Police Commissioner, the ambition for the police to “arrest more criminals than we employ”. Baek tells of Kim Hung Kwang, whose job at his University was to prevent foreign information from entering the country, who himself got hooked on Hallyu, the Korean Wave of film, music and culture, and eventually started to loan films to colleagues in his office. Watching such films is a misdemeanor, distributing a crime. One was caught selling copies and promptly shopped Kim. Kim got twelve months in a reeducation camp and was “warned that he would be expelled from the Communist Party for any further mistakes”. That was the year of planning his escape. “How humiliating it was to go from a professor to a farmer. I couldn’t even lift my head while working, because I was so embarrassed.”

The “Hidden Revolution” is staffed by the “Jangmadang” generation, the under thirty-fives who became adults after the famine of the late 90s when hundreds of thousands, if not millions, died. “Jangmadang” means “market grounds”, referring to the grey and black markets that emerged back then. These surfaced as the famine collapsed the Public Distribution System previously delivering food and other necessities to the populace, throwing them instead on their own resources. The  markets sucked in imports from China and along in the spate came artefacts of entertainment, particularly as the price of DVD players tumbled.  In Pyongyang the younger generation of all classes ride the “Hallyu” sweeping East Asia. K-pop and “soaps” like “Sandglass” and “All In”, along with Chinese and American films and box-sets such as “Agents of Shield” are gobbled up. The ubiquitous viewing shows in their mutable fashion and lexicon.

The economy in Pyongyang is semi-state market where money long ousted Marx. Now ambitious parents look for openings for their children in trading companies rather than the Party. The seriously nouveau richecan buy annual licenses to live abroad for $100,000 while those lower down pay a “ransom” to escape their state allocated jobs in manufacturing to trade in the markets and kiosks. Now three million people have mobile phones that—apparently—cost more than a year’s earnings. Cash cards and ATMs, taxis and pizza delivery are driving change.

Given time—which is far from guaranteed—all the evidence is change will come from within rather than without as the old makes way for the new. Defectors are an unreliable source of information. Baek quotes “Every North Korean defector’s story is contaminated by the National Intelligence Services.”  The “Hidden Revolution” is one very much hidden in plain sight.