When North Korea Fell Out of the World
Can underground globalization bring real change?
The scale of North Korean population movement has expanded dramatically in the past decade. Fewer than 1,000 North Koreans defected to the South in more than 50 years after the Korean War. During China's Cultural Revolution, many ethnic Koreans fled China for the sanity and stability of the DPRK. But since 1998, hundreds of thousands have crossed the river into China, with a smaller number making it as far as Seoul.
New technologies intensify the impact of these population flows, in spite of North Korea's isolation. The old North Korean propaganda system is intact: state-run newspapers; single-frequency radios and single-channel televisions; state broadcasts direct into every home in the country; no Internet access. But the total information monopoly has broken down. Demick's subjects wire their radios to pick up Radio Free Asia and televisions to pick up "subversive" soap operas from South Korea. VCRs, DVDs, VCDs, laptops, CDs, and USB flash drives are increasingly commonplace, even outside Pyongyang. The Egyptian company Orascom established a cell phone network, Koryolink, last year that has steadily grown to include 100,000 subscribers, and Chinese cell phones can pick up signals well across the border.
To judge by Demick's book, this underground globalization of their country is having an impact, and the North Koreans are very aware of it. They call themselves "frogs in a well," alluding to a parable from third-century-BC Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, in which a frog brags to a sea turtle about the glories of life in his dank, muddy well. After hearing from the sea turtle about the wonders of the vast oceans, the frog is devastated by the recognition of the limits of his world. The problem for all of us on the outside is: How to give North Koreans, ordinary and elite, not something merely to envy but instead a way back into modernity?
The answer is one that policy-makers from Washington to Seoul often overlook, fixated as they are on two stark options as they confront North Korea's nuclear threat: either impose harsh sanctions or promise a "grand bargain" of complete normalization and massive financial assistance in return for denuclearization. Either put a stone slab on top of the well or propose to flood it, and then wonder why the frog-king doesn't leap at the offer. The third way lies in between, through incremental engagements that draw North Koreans into the world—without contributing to their military capabilities. Universities, NGOs, corporations, U.N. agencies, and international financial institutions have untapped potential to build more constructive relationships with counterparts in the DPRK. And, as Demick's book suggests, the North Korean exile community is a catalyst for transforming life back in the DPRK that shouldn't be underestimated.
The country's isolation has lasted too long. Nothing To Envy's final paragraph on North Korea's stasis could apply just as well to the underlying policy approach of the United States and its allies since the end of the Cold War.
For lack of chairs or benches, the people sit for hours on their haunches, along the sides of roads, in parks, in the market. They stare straight ahead as though they are waiting—for a tram, maybe, or a passing car? A friend or relative? Maybe they are waiting for nothing in particular, just waiting for something to change.
This June marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. How much longer is the world prepared to wait?
John Delury is associate director of Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations in New York and co-authored North Korea Inside Out: The Case for Economic Engagement.