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North Korea: The Silent Rebellion

John Bridges is a published author of history, and politics. His doctorate is in criminal justice.

Capitalism in Rural North Korea

These North Korean women are risking their lives by running an market selling illegal goods. People in rural communities rely on these illegal markets to survive

These North Korean women are risking their lives by running an market selling illegal goods. People in rural communities rely on these illegal markets to survive

North Korea is a country of have and have nots. The few elite loyalists live a lavish life in cordoned off cities such as Pyongyang. They are granted privileges such as driving personal vehicle, access to ample food, housing and protection. Their lives are far removed from the general suffering occurring outside the city.

When the USSR collapsed, its financial support to North Korea ended abruptly causing an unanticipated financial crisis in the hermit state. The regime was no longer able to provide for the people, and up to 3.5 million North Koreans lost their lives due to famine. The rural North Korean people had to survive with little government assistance and began to engage in illegal market activities and foraging to get food. They initiated a process known as marketization from below.

North Koreans are not permitted to sell items. All items are provided by the state and remain the property of the state, right down to the clothes on a person’s back. Privatization of markets is considered a threat to the regime which want people to remain reliant on the state. Anyone who becomes self-sufficient, or who no longer is reliant of the state is a threat to the existence of the regime.

Desperation created the markets. Distance from the top echelons of the regime kept them in place. The market became the primary source of food for ordinary North Koreans outside the ruling elite, and as food markets gradually grew to encompass a broader range of goods and services, the market mindset and profit motive spread throughout North Korean society.

Initially the government used severe crackdowns t close these illegal markets but have since developed a policy of grudging tolerance due to the people’s resilience. After the 2009 currency reform failure the regime understands that the markets are a fact of life that they must learn to live with.

North Korea's Elite Thrive While Everyone Else Starves

Smuggling of both food and items across the border with China increased dramatically. The influx of foreign consumer goods spread through North Korea’s markets. Foreign radios gave people access to foreign news. Electronic items gave the North Korean people tangible evidence of the advancement of their neighboring countries.

Until recent technological advances, the North Korean regime had few things to sell to the outside world. They are desperate for foreign currency. With little to sell and crippling sanctions limiting laces they can sell their good, the North Korean government has become desperate. North Korea counterfeits foreign money, including American 100.00 bills. They have also counterfeit products, such as American cigarettes. The government exports people as cheap North Korean labor to foreign countries. North Koreans are being exposed to the outside world and the prosperity and advancement of other countries. The regime takes the majority of these workers’ wages, but jobs at foreign companies are still keenly sought after by North Koreans.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex is an economic cooperation zone where South Korean companies hire North Korean workers. It has created an awareness of South Korea’s economic and technological progress throughout North Korean society. Defectors have reported that they learned of the Kaesong Industrial Complex through word of mouth, even though they lived at the opposite end of the country. North Korean workers were said to be paid well to work with South Koreans, producing goods that are vastly superior to anything manufactures in North Korean factories. These jobs are highly coveted, although the regime takes much of the workers’ salaries.

In North Korea laws are designed to protect an authoritarian regime. There are a lot of benefits to ordinary people when the rule of law breaks down. They have access to things the government fails to supply, they develop autonomy and a sense of community trust based on collective illegal activities. Defectors and refugees report that corruption is rampant and that in North Korea there isn’t anything you can’t do if you have money. It is a self-reliant community based on mutual trust that is sparking the silent rebellion.

These economic activities are considered illegal, but many regime officials rely on bribes themselves to survive, corruption is rampant. Restrictions and crackdowns keep market activity within the illegal/informal sector. Crackdowns have become part political intimidation and part economic predation. Everybody wants his or her share of the profiteering. Local security officials have a high level of discretion in arrest and sentencing. By sustaining a fear of harsher punishments, security officials can extract higher bribes. Since local officials are complicit in protecting the criminal activities, it is impossible for the central regime to crack down on private business. Corruption is creating opportunities for those with some money to operate more freely from regime restrictions. The prevalence of corruption corrodes regime control.

A North Korean Guard turns a blind eye to smugglers returning from China

A North Korean Guard turns a blind eye to smugglers returning from China

A growing segment of the North Korean population engage in market activities representing acts of mass disobedience. They find their interests and needs in opposition to the regime’s economic policy, restrictions, and crackdowns.

The outside world is aware of these changes occurring within North Korea. Part of the policy of appeasement practiced by Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. was based upon a belief that once the people of North Korea gained enough autonomy and became more aware of the outside world that they would prompt regime change. When the regime feels threatened, however, it becomes more aggressive in enforcing laws. Public executions, including people in a position of prominence increase as a warning to others to follow government policies.

Despite being a media environment, North Koreans have significantly more access to outside information than they have in the past. This is having a real impact on their views and attitudes. The regime’s media monopoly is being broken down by cross-border movement, trade, and new technologies. The illegal markets have increased the availability of mobile phones, televisions, radios, DVD players, and South Korean dramas and Chinese films to watch on them.

North Koreans are learning more about the reality of life in the outside world and are discovering the true reasons for their own poverty. Once the truth is known it cannot be unlearned. Exposure to the truth, empowers the North Korean people to think independently from the regime and breaks them from a life of servitude based upon previously internalized propaganda. It is increasingly obvious to newly enlightened North Koreans that the country’s difficulties are not caused by external hostile forces, but by the regime.

Demographics are also changing in North Korea. People in their 20s and 30s are less aware of the socialist state of the past. Propaganda is influencing them less because they do not have the same experiences as the older generations. Their attitudes, values and even behaviors are significantly different from their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. They grew up in an era where people had to fend for themselves. Traditional ideology seems hollow and irrelevant to them, and they are more influenced by foreign media.

North Korea's Illegal Marketplaces

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Many younger North Koreans feel little attachment to the regime or the leadership; seeing regime officials as takers rather than the providers the older generations remember. They have less respect for the regime compared to previous generations. In a silent rebellion they will be a crucial factor in pushing for change.

Since the famine, over 28,000 North Korean refugees made it all the way to South Korea, with an unknown number escaping to China. Many maintain contact with family members still in North Korea, increasing the North Korean people’s collective knowledge of the outside world. Many also send money back to their relatives through brokers. These remittances are used to buy human security as well as fund smuggling operations and build trade activities. The money accelerates marketization which further divides the people and the regime. Refugees also provide information about the reclusive nation to the outside world.

The silent rebellion has begun. The regime feels the pressure and threats posed by internal change they cannot control. Newly former social connections may empower people to push back against the regime collectively and demand change. There is evidence that this is already happening.

Show How Much You Know

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. South Korean film director Shin Sang Ok made dozens of films for North Korea, why?
    • They paid him a lot of money
    • He was a defector
    • He was kinapped and force to make them
    • He was hoping to foster reunification
  2. Kim's older brother, Kim Jong Dam was supposed to become leader but fell out of his father's favor...why?
    • He ran a brothel
    • He was suspected of spying for South Korea
    • He was caught using a false passport to go to Disneyland
    • He was mentally ill
  3. What happened to Kim Jong Dan
    • He is living in exile in South Korea
    • He is North Korea's Ambassador to China
    • He died of the flu
    • He was assasinated by North Korean agents

Answer Key

  1. He was kinapped and force to make them
  2. He was caught using a false passport to go to Disneyland
  3. He was assasinated by North Korean agents

Voice Your Opinion


Jankin Narzary on November 25, 2018:

Only time will tell. This regime will not last long and this would be worse than Maumar El Gaddafi.

Ken Burgess from Florida on July 10, 2018:

JB, you can just click on the profile image next to my name, that will take you to my 'homepage' where you can see the articles I have written. And also the forums I have started.

When you 'follow' someone (an option found on their homepage) you will get notices of when they publish something new. I am sure you will get the hang of it in no time.

Dr John Bridges (author) from Portland, OR on July 10, 2018:

Ken, I enjoy geopolitics and have a decent knowledge of how most countries interconnect. I am also very new here...just a couple days. My North Korea books were based of a book I wrote, so I have researched the region well. I may write one or 2 more about North Korea but I think I am ready move on to other subjects.

Once I figure out how to navigate this web site, I would be happy to take a look at your writing as well. (if you leave a link here for me, it may make things easier) JB

Ken Burgess from Florida on July 10, 2018:

JB it seems you have a lot of knowledge as to the events and efforts regarding the rise and decline, and decline and rise, of the Korean states, and the major players impacting them.

I have already written articles related to trade and China, and would consider any commentary you had to offer on them worth the read I am sure.

You have covered North Korean issues quite well in your articles, and I am looking forward to reading the remainder of them when time allows.

Dr John Bridges (author) from Portland, OR on July 09, 2018:

Ken, First and foremost, thank you for your service. I also thank you for your thoughtful post. You are correct that there was a time North Korea was more advanced than both South Korea and China. While the events that precipitated the decline of North Korea and the rise of South Korea and China occurred during the same time periods, they are not truly related.

North Korea (and other countries) were reliant on money given to them from the USSR and when it collapsed those payments stopped. This had a huge impact on North Korea. Trade agreements were limited and then the flooding ruined crops. They never recovered.

South Korea was bolstered first by Japan, which used it to circumvent trade restrictions with the US. good made in Japan were sent to South Korea, relabeled as made in South Korea and then shipped to the US. This prompted investments from both the US and Japan in manufacturing in South Korea and gave it money to allow it to jump start manufacturing of its own.

Unlike the US, China plans long term (5 years out). The had built factories stretching 60 miles in all directions laying in wait. What they were waiting for was a US President willing to grant them free trade status (and yes bribery was involved) That President was Bill Clinton. With factories ready to start immediately, the US was flooded with cheaply made good produce in China.

You sound like you may have some interesting stories. I hope you try writing some articles here on Hubpages


Ken Burgess from Florida on July 09, 2018:

An interesting article. I was in Korea in 96' and '00, both times stationed along the DMZ. Back when the only bridge across the Imjin river was Freedom Bridge.

The changes in South Korea between 96 and 00 were immense, still hard to imagine how so much change can happen in so few years.

And this drastic change that has occurred in but a generation, the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and thereby North Korea, was followed by a never ending surge of economic boom for South Korea and China.

Pre-1990 North Korea was the equal (or better) of their neighbors, South Korea and China had nothing on North Korea.

Post-1990 brought the collapse of the U.S.S.R. - China's growth from backwater country to the world's #1 Industrialized nation producing the technologies the world lives on (Cell Phones, Cars, Medical Equipment, etc.) and South Korea becoming the equal to any small nation in the world (I'd take South Korea over most European nations these days).

Things have never been worse for North Korea, and the prosperity and potential North Korea seemed to have in the 70s and even 80s is now all but a forgotten memory.

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