The North Korean state is increasingly an anomaly in the world today, a throwback to some of the most egregious authoritarian regimes of the 20th century. The regime prevents any political dissent through collective punishment in political prison camps for not just the offending individual, but also their whole family. This means there are no known dissidents or human rights activists inside the country; no North Korean Aung San Suu Kyis or Liu Xiabos, and therefore no leaders for alternative domestic political forces to organize around.
If North Korea falls, the ruling elite fears it will be absorbed into the larger and richer South Korean system, where anybody who is anybody -- in the military, internal security forces, the party, government officials, even the new economic elites -- could lose their jobs to their counterparts from the south and see the system they rely on for power and wealth disappear. Former officials could find themselves on trial or even suffer reprisals from citizens who have been oppressed for so long.
North Korean refugees have reported evidence of several long-term, significant, irreversible social trends that will eventually lead to their country's transformation.
This uncertainty heightens the ruling elite's fear of instability and makes them averse to any kind of change that may accelerate their loss of control.
But wait, there's hope.
North Korean refugees have reported evidence of several long-term, significant, irreversible social trends that will eventually lead to a transformation of North Korea.
The trigger for these social changes was the collapse of the state-socialist economy in the 1990s, which led to a famine that killed up to one million North Koreans. Out of that tragedy emerged the survival mechanism of grassroots marketization, which enabled people to provide for themselves and others with food, goods and services that the government could not or would not provide. In this changing North Korea, we have identified six reasons why the North Korean people will drive a transformation of their country in our lifetime.
Here are the reasons North Korea is unsustainable.
1) Economic Divergence
Reliable data on North Korea's economy is unsurprisingly hard to come by, but the simple truth is that the current system is unable to foster economic development. This is primarily the result of the regime's absolute prioritization of political control. The obsessive effort to micromanage society stifles the people's potential, holding them back and effectively enforcing poverty on them.
By contrast, over the past 50 years South Korea has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to sitting between Israel and New Zealand in per capita GDP (see above chart). The difference between North and South Korea's economies is already the biggest of any two neighboring countries in the world. Just 30 years ago, China was poorer than North Korea; now North Koreans who manage to travel to China (or even just look across the river) are amazed at the bright lights and development they see there. As the rest of the region races ahead, the regime's strategy of obstinately denying change will become incrementally more difficult, especially as this economic discrepancy becomes increasingly obvious to the people.
2) Grassroots Glasnost
The regime has traditionally denied free speech and isolated its people from the outside world in order to maintain its monopoly as the only source of information inside the country. There is no Internet access for all but a select group of officials, and every newspaper and TV station is a mouthpiece for the regime.
However, this information blockade is crumbling, and increasing numbers of refugees report watching South Korean dramas and Hollywood (and even Bollywood) movies that are smuggled in on DVDs and USBs from China. There is also a growing number of Chinese cell phones that are used in border regions to call contacts in China and South Korea -- highly illegal but massively lucrative. Many North Koreans leaving the country more recently report having a much better awareness of the reality of the outside world -- including the relative advancement of South Korea -- than those who left 10 or even five years ago.
The spread of new technologies and information cannot be stopped, and as the information flows increase the regime will be faced with a simple choice: either align their narrative about their country closer to reality, or watch as their traditional narrative becomes increasingly hollow and powerless.
3) Explosion of Corruption
The corruption that was born of the 1990s economic collapse has also led to a loss of control over grassroots society. The regime is essentially broke and cannot provide a budget to most government agencies, nor can they afford proper wages for most officials. Paired with the emergence of new routes to private wealth through the informal economy, bribes and kickbacks have become widespread.
North Koreans consistently tell us that to get ahead or even just survive in North Korea, you have to break the regime's rules, and that money enables all of those rules to be broken. Corruption is therefore steadily eroding the regime's control and authority over society, and there is no effective way to rein this in unless the system itself changes.
4) Refugees Bridging Back Into North Korea
There are tens of thousands of North Koreans that have illegally escaped and have resettled in South Korea, Europe, and North America, and thousands more are leaving every year. These resettled refugees are playing a crucial role in accelerating change in their homeland by serving as a bridge back into North Korea.
An estimated 50 percent of resettled refugees maintain contact with their families back inside through illicit channels and illegal Chinese cell phones. This provides a route for information about the outside world, which is then spread around by word of mouth. Perhaps even more importantly, refugees are sending money back to their North Korean relatives through broker networks. An estimated $10-15 million is being sent each year, enabling family members to bribe security officials, protect themselves, and even invest in entrepreneurial business activity or smuggling operations. Refugees' remittances are fueling the grassroots economy, speeding up the erosion of regime power, and increasing the bottom-up forces for change.
5) Jangmadang (Market) Generation
There is a quiet demographic revolution happening in North Korea. North Koreans born in the 1980s and 1990s have no personal memory of the days under Kim Il Sung, when a functioning state-socialist system actually provided for the people and there was little reason to doubt the official ideology. North Korean millennials instead grew up in an era characterized by marketization and self-interest, with the regime seeming like more of an obstruction than a provider. Their natural youthful curiosity and willingness to take risks also coincided with unprecedented access to illegal foreign media that got many of them hooked on fascinating glimpses of other possibilities.
Many of the refugees are part of this new so-called jangmadang (market) generation, and it is very apparent that they have a different psychological relationship with the regime leadership. They do not care as much about the Japanese colonization or the Korean War, and Juche or socialist ideology is almost irrelevant to them.
The regime's old methods of control through indoctrination and micro-management may even be counterproductive for some of these young North Koreans. And it is only a matter of time before the jangmadang generation makes up the majority of society.
6) Bonds Between the People
Lastly, a result of many of these changes -- particularly marketization and information flows -- is that the North Korean people are more connected to each other than ever before, and they increasingly depend on each other more than they do the regime. This is significant because the state has historically relied on the isolation, atomization, and disempowerment of the North Korean people by instilling a culture of fear and distrust among the citizenry.
This fear is still present in North Korean society, but as mutual trust and dependence within communities gradually grows, the people are increasingly likely to engage in shared illegal behaviors such as watching foreign media and even criticizing the regime together (another trend reported by recent refugees), gradually strengthening the bonds between them. When the people feel more loyalty to each other than to the party, and are more connected to each other, collective empowerment and the bottom-up pressure for change will gradually become a greater force.
It is impossible to predict the precise pathway or timeline for change in any society, let alone one with the research challenges of North Korea. The regime might even see that change is coming and proactively adapt and reform in response while managing the transformation. Or it may bunker down, and change will eventually be forced upon them.
What we can be sure of though is that these trends of empowerment are irreversible, and they mean that in the long term, change in North Korea is inevitable.