By now you know the basics about the huge challenges facing the North Korean people (if not, read our last blog post). But the thread of hope that weaves through this troubled narrative is the North Korean people themselves, and particularly those born in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Unlike their parents, this millennial generation grew up during a time when the regime couldn’t provide for them, so they had to rely on their ingenuity and fellowship to survive.
This generation is the first to see the regime as a barrier that must be overcome in order to succeed in their ambitions and to survive. North Korean millennials also have access to information that their parents could never have dreamed of. Instead of being restricted to watching state-sanctioned propaganda for news and entertainment, these young adults have access to information from the outside world traded on DVDs, USBs and even Micro-SD cards at marketplaces called jangmadang. Through this technology, they’re able to watch South Korean dramas and foreign films and this media is changing the way they view the world.
In an interview with The Guardian, Yeonmi Park, a resettled North Korean who now works as an activist on this issue, recalled watching Titanic back in North Korea. “Everything in North Korea was about the leader, all the books, music and TV,” she said. “So what was shocking to me about Titanic was that the guy gave his life for the woman and not for his country – I just couldn’t understand that mindset.”
“The other shocking thing about that movie was that it was set 100 years ago, and I realised that our country is in the 21st century and we still haven’t reached that level of development,” she said. Even something as seemingly simple as watching Titanic planted a seed in Yeonmi’s mind that grew into distrust of the regime’s propaganda.
Many of these millennials are also entrepreneurs, trading and selling goods and services at the jangmadang. Joo Yang, a North Korean who is now safely resettled in South Korea, sold pigs, Korean taffy, sweet rice drinks, and alcohol in the markets. Later on, she was officially employed at a warehouse. She saw an opportunity there to sell more goods to her co-workers, so she set up a small kiosk and sold cigarettes, socks, and other items.
The money she made allowed her to live relatively comfortably while she waited for a chance to escape out of North Korea. When the authorities came around to crack down on businesses like Joo Yang’s, she would use some of the money she’d earned to pay them bribes so she could keep running her business.
Stories like Yeonmi’s and Joo Yang’s are plentiful and we’ve heard them again and again from North Korean refugees who have recently escaped. This generation’s entrepreneurship, ingenuity, and civil disobedience is part of a trend in North Korea that cannot be reversed. As this generation grows in size and political significance, the regime’s traditional propaganda and methods of social control will be increasingly ineffective and unsustainable.
This article is brought to you by LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), as part of an ongoing partnership and series with Koreaboo in order to create more awareness for the situation in North Korea.