04/06/2015 11:04 am ET Updated Jun 06, 2015

It's Time For Us To Update Our Image of North Koreans


"You are late for our meeting. I will forgive you this one time. But if it happens again, who knows what might happen to you in this country."

I stood there in shock. What could happen to me in this country? Anything, quite possibly. I resolved to shut my mouth for the rest of the day and never, ever, be late for anything in North Korea again.

A very long, awkward minute passed. My interlocutor was suddenly fighting back hysteric laughter.

"Hahaha! Did I go too far?" The rest of the group burst out laughing. I'd been had. My new friends clearly weren't going to fit anyone's stereotype of what North Koreans were supposed to be like.


Whenever North Korean people are mentioned in mainstream generalist news media, it is almost always in the context of North Korea the state. From the hysterical loyalist hordes at Kim Jong Il's funeral to the brutally oppressed prison camp inmate, North Koreans are presented as inseparable from the regime, as though they have absolutely no agency or even personality of their own. There is rarely any sense offered that North Koreans are able to affect their own destiny. Kim Jong Un and his rockets are basically the only game in town.

This is partly understandable. It is not as though one can just wander around Pyongyang conducting "man in the street" interviews. It is far easier to speculate on whether rumors of a coming nuclear test are true (you'd have about a fifty-fifty chance, and nobody remembers incorrect predictions about North Korea anyway). Also easy: churning out yet another article on Kim Jong Un's nonexistent cheese addiction.

But we must start paying proper attention to the North Korean people themselves, for they are where the only real hope lies. While the regime's grasp on power remains as strong as ever, there are huge changes going on at the micro level within the country itself. There exists an increasing psychological distance between people and state. North Koreans were never robots but now more than ever, they are finding their own ways to both make a living and express their character. They're found ways to do so within the bounds of a politically repressive and economically dysfunctional environment.

"There exists an increasing psychological distance between people and state."

As a result of the famine of the mid-1990s in which somewhere between several hundred thousand to two million people died, North Korea's implicit social contract disintegrated. The people could no longer rely on the state, and thus began to fend for themselves. This meant grassroots capitalist activities such as market stall trading, which the government itself now feels compelled to accept (and even taxes).

All manner of private jobs now exist. Traders cart goods around on second- and third-hand bikes over potholed roads, meaning that anyone who can fix bicycles well can make a living. Those who can rig TVs and radios to pick up illegal foreign broadcasts make better livings. There are even plenty of North Koreans who supplement their income by renting out their apartments by the hour to amorous unmarried couples.

In any village, there will be one or two housewives skilled enough to make money from moonshining. The nongtaegi they produce is typically based on corn and causes dreadful hangovers. But North Koreans, like their Southern brethren, are very fond of drinking. Though there are pubs for the well-heeled in big cities like Pyongyang, there is no real bar or club culture in North Korea. Thus, young people knock back nongtaegi or soju at raucous house parties and even party in abandoned buildings.

"North Koreans were never robots but now more than ever, they are finding their own ways to both make a living and express their character."

The soundtrack to many such parties is South Korean "K-pop." USB sticks loaded with MP3 files are brought in through China, and copied endlessly. Many North Koreans with the requisite amount of disposable income buy MP3 players to help with their children's education; their kids then fill them up with K-pop.

South Korean TV drama is popular too. It is changing the way young North Koreans speak, popularizing hitherto unused (South) Korean expressions like "dangyeon haji" ("of course"). Drama is also driving an interest in fashions such as skinny jeans, which are, according to defector interviews, quite popular with young women in urban areas. The South Korean plastic surgery craze is spreading northwards too, thanks to the famed attractiveness of drama stars. There are plenty of amateur surgeons in North Korea performing eyelid blepharoplasty procedures for just a few dollars.

These days, the consumption of foreign media has become normalized, particularly among the young. This goes hand-in-hand with reduced respect for the authorities that try to stamp it out. And thanks to the dramatic rise of corruption in the post-famine era, those who do get caught are, more often than not, let go after handing over the offending material along with a bribe. It is said that nobody watches as much South Korean TV in North Korea as the members of the State Security Department (SSD): they enjoy it just as much as everyone else and have unparalleled access to it.

"The era in which North Korean people follow every rule imposed by the state is well and truly over."

Officials working near the North Korea-China border also have opportunities to enrich themselves through confiscated Chinese mobile phones. Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea talks of a defector friend who used to do business around the border region; an State Security Department agent confiscated the man's phone (and extracted a bribe from him) but, realizing he couldn't do business without it, offered to "buy" it back from the agent. Later, when business improved, he called the same agent and bought another phone from him.

Beneath the plastic veneer of the "single-hearted" North Korea then lies a reality not unlike that that found in any other society. People quite reasonably pursue their own ends, attempt to attain a better quality of life and have a little fun when the opportunity arises. Political control in North Korea remains utterly intact, unfortunately, but the era in which North Korean people follow every rule imposed by the state is well and truly over. It is thus time we updated our image of North Koreans, too.

Tudor is the co-author of the forthcoming book, North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors.

Inside North Korea