Understanding and engaging with North Koreans

Understanding what it means to be North Korean is crucial to answering the broader questions of state behavior. We have all heard the testimonies of North Korean defectors about the idea of juche and the personality cult of the Kim “dynasty,” but North Korea is not just its leaders, but also its people. Without an understanding of the people, dialogue with the state alone is set to make little progress.

While the North Korean state apparatus is all too aware of, and actively planning their next move against, Western pronouncements … we must not forget the people of the DPRK. They, like Kim Jong Un, are also far from naïve. Instead, they can be highly calculating, aware that they are not living in the “socialist paradise on Earth,” and, especially among the younger generation of middle-class Pyongyangers, possess a burning desire to develop their own careers, enterprises, and curiosity with the world outside the DPRK.

The 1990s saw the slow erosion of state ideological control. What was once an essential “social norm” of ideological obedience to the state became viewed as merely a “social necessity” by which to conform in public, and was clear evidence of the power of nunchi in individuals’ desires to be the masters of their own lives. VCRs and DVDs became the early fulcrums for questioning the extant state ideology. North Koreans could also obtain short-wave radios, and, instead of tuning to the usual state broadcast, could tune to news emanating from China and south of the 38th parallel. It was such banal yet pivotal moments that opened the minds of individuals living under the confines of the Kim regime to the outside world, a world that was not as poverty-stricken, nor abusive, as they were once told.

[Even] North Korean defectors still view the DPRK as their “homeland.” For many, Kim Il-sung remains the “Father of the Nation,” yet defection became the only route for a better future. A survey by Chosun Ilbo in 2014 discovered that amongst the North Korean defector community, 80 percent viewed Kim Il-sung favorably, in contrast to 19.5 percent for Kim Jong-Il, and a mere 9 percent for Kim Jong-un. This stark contrast between the “Father of the Nation” and the younger Kim in power today … shows that the DPRK is not a static country, the Kims are not three incarnations of one – be it one ideology, one mindset, or one ruling mechanism.

[Excerpts of a Diplomat article by Edward Howell, Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford]

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