Cracks in the Walls of the Hermit Kingdom

Stephen J. Gallas reviews a new book about North Korea.

Cracks in the Walls of the Hermit Kingdom

North Korea’s Hidden Revolution by Jieun Baek. Yale University Press. 312 pages.

TO THE AVERAGE AMERICAN, life in North Korea is unimaginable. We are all aware that this is a country ruled by one of the most violently oppressive regimes in modern history, and that all forms of free speech are strictly prohibited. We have a picture of a society in which everyone is brainwashed to be loyal to the Kim dynasty. We see the televised parades, with soldiers marching in unison in displays of fealty to Kim Jong-un. The nuclear arsenal grows and improves with every test, and is a sign of North Korean solidarity and strength.

This standard narrative paints a picture that North Korea is stronger than ever, and in full control of its population. When dealing with anything involving North Korea, however, it is important to remember that propaganda is key. The government, aware of its great power, goes to great lengths to distort information going out to the rest of the world, while simultaneously choking off information coming in. The goal of this practice is simple: keep foreign powers guessing, and keep the general population docile. Consumption of foreign media is a serious offense in North Korea, punishable by public execution.

In North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society, Jieun Baek uses the testimonies of North Korean defectors to provide an in-depth account of the cracks in the North Korean firewall. Baek is about as well qualified as anyone to discuss the issue of information dissemination in North Korea: she formerly worked at Google, organized a trip with her Harvard classmates to Pyongyang, and speaks Korean. She maintains that if any meaningful change is ever going to occur on a governmental level, dissemination of media will play a role.

Throughout the book, Baek provides the relevant backdrop of how conditions in North Korea have evolved over the years and thus necessitated the current conditions of ever-increasing exposure to information. She seeks to shatter misconceptions of life in North Korea, and often uses defector testimonies to illustrate that life in North Korea is not dire for everyone, and that simply being exposed to foreign media does not instantly change a person’s views on everything they have come to believe.

For any interested reader with little to no background knowledge on North Korea, this book is an excellent jumping off point due to the measured, clear manner in which Baek relays information regarding the subject.

Hidden Revolution is especially timely considering that we are in the midst of the Information Age, and Baek considers what that means for North Korea. For anyone looking to read into the way the government itself operates, this is not that kind of book. While literature on North Korea often focuses on the Kim family or the escapes of defectors, Baek chooses to retell experiences of defectors to provide insight into the realities of North Korea today.

With the telecommunications and internet advances of the last 15 years, it has become increasingly difficult for the North Korean government to monitor its civilians and prosecute them for consuming foreign media. It is, after all, a lot easier to store information on a USB than it is to store information on a CD. In Hidden Revolution, Baek gives estimates that 70 to 80 percent of North Koreans are now exposed to foreign media, whether it be TV, radio, news, movies, books, or music. A huge chunk of this media, as is to be expected, comes from South Korea.

Multiple accounts, such as Jang Jin-Sung's book Dear Leader, have shown that the respective images of South Korea and the United States are falsely illustrated in the education systems of the North. The narrative is that the United States started the Korean War, and that the United States currently owns South Korea as a colony, where people wander the streets naked in abject poverty. Time and time again, defectors relate to Baek that while they understood they were fictionalized, South Korean dramas shattered the notions they had held about their sister country to the south. For anyone who has been to Seoul, one of the most advanced and convenient cities in the world, the image the North paints sounds comical.

The true reason foreign media became such a huge industry was not political, as Baek asserts, but due to the Great Famine of the 1990s. At this time, the distribution system completely collapsed, and people had to either stay loyal to the party or show some ingenuity. Because of the absence of food, especially in the remoter rural regions, strict dedication to the party’s rules meant death. As Baek lays out early on:

Against the regime’s will, much of the country became entrepreneurial and resorted to creating local street markets to buy and sell whatever they could to purchase food and survive. Street markets are capitalist in nature, and are technically illegal in North Korea, but during this desperate, semi-anarchic period when corpses were lining the streets, most local authorities turned a blind eye to the new phenomenon. After all, most of the goods being sold were food, clothing, and other basic necessities. North Korean propaganda poet Jang Jin-Sung writes in his memoirs about coming across the Corpse Division when he returned to his home town for a few days after working in Pyongyang for years.

Horrifying conditions led to people abandoning the failed distribution system in favor of black markets of every kind, which eventually included foreign media. The line of reasoning that Baek applies to the inception of the black market system in North Korea makes perfect sense: the distribution system collapses, so people look elsewhere to survive. After these markets become more profitable, people look to sell what is in demand. Additionally, people are inherently interested in seeing what is forbidden. As a result, foreign media makes its way into the markets and has created a new generation that is not as undyingly loyal to Kim Jong-un as their elders had been to Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il. This, however, does not mean that a revolution is imminent, as Baek points out that there is a litany of logistical challenges:

Out of fear of politically motivated action, group activities that are not state-sanctioned are banned. Student groups, soccer teams, social gatherings at night, and overnight stays at other people’s houses without permits are all prohibited. In addition to the logistical challenges posed by these bans, collective action is difficult because trust is difficult to cultivate and sustain. Since the regime has long fostered suspicion by planting snitches in the neighborhoods and incentivizing the exposure of others, meaningful trust among North Koreans is difficult to create.

People are not watching episodes of South Korean dramas and then taking to the streets with pitchforks. Think more along the lines of 1984, in which children rat out their parents to the Thought Police, and Winston Smith does not know whether he can trust anyone. It is incredibly difficult to organize and protest when the government has laws in place specifically aimed to nip that type of action in the bud.

For the past 60-plus years in Korea, the ultimate goal is and always has been reunification. On the peninsula, the two respective governments truly recognize the existence of only one Korea. Any time you meet a person from South Korea, they will only say they are from Korea. Asking them to clarify whether they are from the North or South is viewed as ignorant, because Koreans view themselves as one people with a proud history and culture. Going about reunification, however, is no easy task, and the more time passes, the more difficult it becomes. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when North Korea was actually in a better economic position and separated family members were younger, reunification would have been easier.

During my four years of living in South Korea, I found North Korea omnipresent in leading news outlets such as Yonhap, which have sections dedicated to current goings-on in the reclusive state. In day-to-day life, however, it is rarely a topic of conversation. When asking Korean people how they feel about North Korea, most people respond with surprising indifference. When North Korea was threatening the United States and South Korea with nuclear weapons in April 2013, some American media outlets reported that everyone in Seoul was preparing as if war could break out any minute. But everyone I saw was simply carrying on with their everyday business. Life in South Korea, and particularly Seoul, is so fast paced that nobody has time to think about North Korea, whether the issue is threats of war or reunification.

The gulf between life in North and South Korea is widening more than ever. The North remains the Hermit Kingdom we hear so much about, but the South is a truly dynamic country. Throughout East and Southeast Asia, South Korean pop culture trends reign supreme. If a traveler goes to Bangkok, Hong Kong, or any other major city in Asia, they will see advertisements featuring Korean celebrities. Every television series released reaches millions of viewers throughout the continent. It is this glaring difference between the two countries that highlights the major differences in government policy among the same group of people. As time goes on, too, family connections grow increasingly distant. These are all points that Baek touches on in Hidden Revolution, when discussing the difficulties surrounding the issue of reunification.

All in all, however, Baek sees increased exposure to the outside world as reason for hope for the people of North Korea, and while a mind-numbingly challenging task, reunification of the Korean peninsula remains a possibility. How long it takes, and how it may occur, remain major questions that scholars will continue to debate. This timely and cogent book adds considerable information to that discussion.


Stephen J. Gallas is a current MFA candidate at Chapman University.

LARB Contributor

Stephen J. Gallas is a current MFA candidate at Chapman University. He lived in Korea for four years, where he worked as an English instructor. He has fiction forthcoming in The Cat’s Meow for Writers & Readers.


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