Barbara Demick's Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. 

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 10 2010 7:02 AM

When North Korea Fell Out of the World

Can underground globalization bring real change?

(Continued from Page 1)

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?



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge


The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 6:23 PM Bryan Cranston Reenacts Baseball’s Best Moments to Promote the Upcoming Postseason
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.