Winter Reading: Jieun Baek on North Korea's Hidden Revolution



Jieun Baek has an interesting career, having done human rights organizing on North Korea as an undergraduate at Harvard before working at Google—including on these issues—and spending a stint at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. She has recently been writing widely on North Korea’s information underground, most notably in a Belfer Center policy report on information strategies, in her new book from Yale, a crisp op-ed at the New York Times, and a piece at Foreign Affairs;  her blog can be found here. The central thesis of her work: information is transforming North Korea and we should do more to assure that it continues to seep in. Hear hear!

When asked what a newcomer to North Korea should read, I always suggest refugee testimony; our posts to this sort of work is linked below. Some of the best in this genre is not necessarily the single-authored (and often ghost written) account but those recollections collated by thoughtful editors and story tellers, such as Barbara Demick’s classic Nothing to Envy or Sandra Fahy’s Marching Through Suffering. Baek’s book is in this model, talking about the issues through the experiences of defectors she has interviewed.

The model undergirding the book is psychological. People risk seeking out subversive information in authoritarian regimes because they are innately curious. The easier the access the more likely they are to do so. Once they do, cognitive dissonance starts to operate. Once this happens, more open minds start to challenge orthodoxy and certainly the tissue of propagandistic lies that sustain the regime. While Baek is cautious about the political implications, it is clear that she thinks that good things follow, ranging from defection to at least the possibility of anti-regime activity.

As with most such accounts, there is an obligatory opening chapter that runs through the basics: the history, political system, military and nukes, but with a focus on propaganda and the control of information. The guts of the book is a consideration of various aspects of what she calls the information underground. The first chapter built around defectors simply provides half a dozen examples of defectors’ experiences with the information underground, typically laced with risk, punishment, and a non-linear process of cognitive change.

A second chapter does double duty of retelling similar stories, but for a group of defectors including Park Sang-hak, Park Se-joon, Kim Seong-min and Choi Jung-hoon how occupy prominent positions in the South Korean defector broadcasting and messaging community (balloons in the case of Park Sang-hak, broadcasting in the case of the others). There is a lot of practical wisdom in how they think through strategy for reaching an audience that is becoming very much more heterogeneous over time, with a younger generation of North Koreans—at least among some social strata—already pretty savvy and an older generation with quite different feelings about the regime. Two worthwhile findings. First, Baek notes at several points that sharply political messages are not as effective as those that simply convey information, and particularly on defectors in the South. A second interesting finding: broadcasters have evidence of audiences in countries where North Korea has embassies, suggesting that state personnel are hardly immune from the lure; I come back to this point as it may undercut Baek’s optimistic narrative.

One of the more interesting chapters traces the complex web of communications with the North via a combination of smuggled cellphones, DVDs and increasingly USB drives, MP4 players and SD cards. But this cellular communication runs in parallel with a real network of smugglers moving goods into the country and financial connections too. Baek estimates that between 200 and 2000 phone calls are made between the South and the North every day, conveying family connections and news but also everything from prices to confirmation of received goods. One of Baek’s informants talks about the financial underground: anonymous Korean Chinese who manage remittances into the country for fees running as high as 30%; Baek estimates as many as 60% of the 30,000 defectors in the South remit to the North. Alongside the cellular and financial networks are smuggling of goods as well, including the cultural product that is the focus of Baek’s inquiry. Not surprisingly, this is a demand-driven business with North Koreans signaling quite clearly what they want. As we argued with respect to food, the organizations involved in smuggling these wares are not altogether concerned about losses, since they probably end up being watched by border guards and internal security.

As much as I like this book, and as much as Marc Noland and I strongly support informational strategies vis-à-vis the regime, it raises important questions about the effects that outside information actually has on regime stability. In a chapter on the North Korean millennials, Baek emphasizes that their interests are hardly political; rather, they are market-oriented and relentlessly consumerist. There is a subversive quality to outside information, including in the social sharing of cultural product. But those effects may be more culturally than politically subversive and as a result might even be accommodated. As anyone working with defector testimony knows, defectors are selected; they may or may not represent those that leave. And as Baek acknowledges, improvements in the lives of North Koreans should—ceteris paribus—encourage them to stay rather than leave.

Yet with this crucial caveat, I fully endorse Baek’s closing chapter, which constitutes a detailed manifesto for a more robust information strategy. It is clear that the regime is nervous about information and that alone is probably enough to act on, even in the absence of the moving defector testimony that Baek collates. Responses to information are not doubt heterogeneous, and for every son or daughter of an elite who revels in their privileged access there is no doubt at least several who find themselves questioning orthodoxy and propaganda as a result of exposure to the outside. As she concludes, the North Korean conundrum is not amenable to a quick fix: getting people and information in and out is clearly an important part of the long game.


Witness to Transformation Reviews of Defector Memoirs, Testimony and Interviews

Yeonmi Park, In Order Live: a North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, Part I, Part II 

Jang Jin-Sung: Dear Leader

Eunsun Kim: A Thousand Miles to Freedom

On Shin Don-hyuk: Escape from Camp 14; The Case Against--and For--Shin Dong-hyuk; The DPRK on Shin Dong-hyuk

Lucia Jang: Stars Between the Sun and Moon (afterward by Stephan Haggard) 

Sandra Fahy: Marching Through Suffering 

Yeonmi Park Talk "I Am a North Korean Millenial"

Hyeonseo Lee TED Talk: My Escape from North Korea

Joseph Kim TED Talk: Hunger is Humiliation

Green and Epstein on On My Way to Meet You

Committee on Human Rights in North Korea Intern Memoirs

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