By Kim Jong-dae, visiting scholar at Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies
I met a North Korean defector in his early 40s, who had traveled through China and Russia before arriving in South Korea this year. When I introduced myself, I was astonished by his reply. “I already know all about you. I’ve seen you a few times on YouTube,” he told me.
I was even more surprised to find that most of what he remembered were things I had said while appearing on television or in government questioning sessions during my time in the National Assembly. He explained that he often watched videos overseas to see what the South Korean politicians were saying about the North.
Another defector in his early 30s said he would always remember the night two years ago when he crossed the Yalu (Amnok) River. He kept looking back toward his homeland, feeling as though he had left something valuable behind. After a long and complicated journey, he finally arrived in South Korea, where he is now studying administration at a university.
This generation of defectors is quite different from the ones in the past, who felt compelled to leave North Korea after being cast out of its system due to hunger or discrimination.
The newer ones witnessed the Arduous March and its acute shortage of food when they were children. They experienced the nascent market economy as social controls were inevitably relaxed as a result. They are people who acquired some vague knowledge of the principles of freedom and responsibility.
These days, the number of North Korean defectors settling in the South has fallen off sharply. But at least some of the ones who are arriving now are “smart migrants” who already know all about the good and bad aspects of the South Korean regime. They made their own independent decision to cross over, and what they need now is not a solution to hunger, but a new sense of hope.
Although they are quite knowledgeable about South Korean society, it can’t really be said that they’ve become fully integrated into the South’s system. There’s a sense of collective insecurity that is the production of South Korean neoliberalism — a fear of slipping back down a ladder of competition where hierarchies are determined by personal ability.
In a psychological sense, North Koreans seem like they may be healthier than people in South Korea, who often feel compelled to seek out therapy to deal with the pressures of competition and scars to their self-esteem that start in their teenage years. An era of loss where people suffer from depression and panic disorders, a stealthily spreading sense of existential crisis — these are steep prices to pay for nominal “freedom.”
In contrast, totalitarianism may seem like a very cozy system, as long as the rationing system functions well and daily essentials remain more or less available. There is no need for individuals to experience any sense of existential crisis: the state assumes responsibility for their survival, provided that they perform the work the state needs.
For people accustomed to the principle of prioritizing the group, the granting of personal freedom can be the worst punishment of all. Freedom is only a blessing to those who seek to enjoy it; to those who do not understand what it is, it merely becomes a source of insecurity.
Having never before lived in freedom, most residents of North Korea are aware of how prosperous South Korea is, but they see no cause for envying it, especially when that would come at the cost of their own self-respect.
This explains why, despite all the rumblings of “imminent collapse” that you hear on the outside whenever the North Korean regime faces an economic crisis, we have yet to see signs of disorder about North Koreans themselves. In that sense, at least, the North’s form of totalitarianism can be characterized as an unrivaled global success.
But what about the future? Amid international sanctions and pandemic prevention measures, North Korea’s insular system is faced with chronic supply shortages. Its difficulties are expected to be even harsher this year.
To enforce a stronger sense of cohesion in its regime, the North Korean government has stepped up its ideological and moral education for Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) officials, with a particular focus on educating the new so-called “marketplace generation” of officials.
These 20- and 30-something officials cannot be controlled simply through the traditional emphasis on “loyalty to the party and leader.” You have to offer them something in return; unable to do that, Pyongyang has sought to control them, demanding even more loyalty.
They represent the biggest weak spot in the North Korean regime: the new generation of officials, who are sensitive to material abundance and freedom. They also remember what they saw two years ago when South Korean President Moon Jae-in spoke about peace before a crowd of 50,000 at Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang. It came as quite a shock to North Korea’s new generation — the chime of a bell signifying hope for a new era.
It seemed as though a new world had arrived; now, all that awaits them is economic trouble and the souring of inter-Korean relations. They are left questioning the WPK leadership. They wonder, “Why all the fuss about inviting Moon Jae-in if it was just going to turn out like this?”
This is what we will need to focus on if we hope to change the North Korean system. South Korea will need to “export” the same kind of hope to North Korea’s bright new generation as they saw two years ago — real hope, not just military pressure.
Communicating the possibilities of material prosperity and individual happiness to the North is not something that can be done overnight. But the new generation who will be tomorrow’s agents of reform in North Korea are increasingly ready to welcome hope.
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