How millennials are shaking North Korea’s regime

If American millennials are fighting a bad rap as entitled and unemployed, how are young people navigating adulthood in other pockets of the world? What about in an extreme country like North Korea?

Six decades after the end of the Korean War that divided the Korean peninsula, the North remains a totalitarian state. The regime controls its citizens' livelihoods, media consumption and movement. Illegal activities, including watching foreign DVDs to more brazen acts such as attempting to escape the country, can result in punishment and even execution. It's in this state-socialist environment that an unexpected, younger generation of budding capitalists is emerging. That's right: grassroots, free-market activities, bubbling and propagating amid widely looped footage of famine, rallies and nuclear weapons proliferation.

Inside a North Korean black market
Inside a North Korean black market   
Videos by Heesun Wee and Brad Quick

The nation's ruler, Kim Jong Un, is believed to be in his early 30s and has an appetite for media attention. He hangs courtside with Dennis Rodman and has reappeared after a public absence. His lavish lifestyle in a poor country has become a recycled punchline. "Hey, did you hear the one about the guy, who entered the most dangerous place on earth?"

When Kim became ruler after his father's death three years ago, he took over a different country than Kim Jong Il's. North Koreans' universe is divided into two periods: before and after one of the 20th century's worst famines. The devastation killed roughly 2 million people, though estimates vary widely. Starving in the '90s, North Koreans turned to nascent, outdoor markets that had emerged in the previous decade. Industrious housewives hawked worn kitchen bowls for handfuls of rice in the black markets. The goal was simple. Secure food for the day, period.

"A certain amount of this activity was decriminalized," said Marcus Noland, a leading researcher on the North Korean economy. The country's gradual, bottom-up marketization would be triggered not by civil disobedience and earnest reforms, but a crumbling food distribution system that was unable to feed the people. "To paraphrase Bill Clinton, 'Those who played by the rules died,'" said Noland, a researcher at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

"My generation, they're not really worshipping the Kim regime sincerely, just pretending. That's what we call the black market generation." -Yeonmi Park

The black markets have since flourished beyond North Korea's capital Pyongyang and dot the country. It's in this environment of marketization that North Korea's younger generation is taking shape. Adults ages 18 to 35—roughly 25 percent of the population of nearly 25 million—were born in the '80s and '90s. Most never received food rations and have no warm memories of a stable regime. They're more individualistic than their parents. And like American millennials, more young North Koreans aren't waiting for the government or institutions to bail them out. They're engineering their own survival. They're tagging along with adults and learning how to peddle goods in the black markets, a kind of North Korean hustle.

As more young North Koreans are shaped by how to make money, they're also coming of age amid unprecedented access to technology and foreign media. Tech hardware and information are making their way through the porous, 880-mile border between North Korea and China. This wasn't happening a decade ago. Foreign DVDs and data-filled USB thumb drives can be found discreetly through the black markets. Such activities are prohibited by the regime and much more dangerous than accessing clothes and food. But as in any closed society, sheer will finds a way. Family and friends huddle to watch foreign media. North Korean fishermen listen to South Korean weather reports on shortwave radios. And while adults may listen to outside information yet still feel reverence for the Kim dynasty, more millennials don't necessarily share their parents' attitude, at least not with the same zeal. Raised in a stumbling economy that propelled them into market activities, more young adults are growing savvy about both making money and the outside world.

It's a big leap to imagine young adults using new-found knowledge and market savvy to construct a revolution. North Koreans in droves aren't plotting to overthrow the regime or flee the country. Escapees entering South Korea—after a roundabout journey through China and Southeast Asia—have actually declined more than 40 percent in recent years, suggesting Kim is cracking down on border security.

But younger North Koreans are helping to make grassroots market changes a permanent part of the economy. The black markets are too big and entrenched for the government to shut down. And as ordinary citizens scrape together a living, outside information is stirring intoxicating feelings about what's possible. "The leadership in North Korea knows what's going on among its domestic citizens, especially the younger generation," said Jieun Baek, who traveled to North Korea in 2013. As part of a closely watched tour group, curious North Koreans asked her about America and the outside world. She offered her makeup and bottle of Motrin as gifts. "You can't unlearn citizens' knowledge of the outside world," said Baek, a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

Yeonmi Park is a North Korean defector, and sold goods in the North Korean black markets as a teenager.
Yeonmi Park is a North Korean defector, and sold goods in the North Korean black markets as a teenager.

And once you know what's possible, it's hard to go back. "Most people are now involved in the black market because if they don't go to the black market to do business, they cannot survive," said Yeonmi Park, 21. Park was born and raised in North Korea. When she was about 10, she first dabbled in capitalism by bribing orchard guards with alcohol to give her a bucket of persimmons, which she then sold in the markets.

It was this first-hand experience in free enterprise that would prepare Park for her three-year journey to freedom from North Korea. Partly aided by handlers, her route launched her into Mongolia and China, including the Gobi Desert. But because China doesn't allow North Koreans to seek asylum and repatriates them to North Korea, many defectors—once free—are on the lam for months, if not years. They hopscotch through China and Southeast Asia in a modern-day underground railroad that can span some 3,000 miles to the democratic South.

"The black market generation is someone like me, who experienced the black market when they were young. They never received any rations from the government. They have no memories of the good life," Park said. "My generation, they're not really worshiping the Kim regime sincerely, just pretending. That's what we call the black market generation."

For years, Park dutifully sang songs about the regime. While the Cold War has dissolved, rogue North Korea, roughly the size of Pennsylvania, has managed a three-generation lineage. "Everything was all about the regime and everything was about our leader," Park said. "All the books, all the buildings, all the songs that I had to sing were about the leader." Then something changed.

In 2010, Joo Yang defected from North Korea, where she learned about the outside world through radio reports.
Source: CNBC
In 2010, Joo Yang defected from North Korea, where she learned about the outside world through radio reports.

Capitalism can lead to yearning

In 2010, another North Korean millennial was immersed in the black markets. Joo Yang was 13, when she first dipped into private enterprise. She used savings to acquire items wholesale, then sold her goods, at a profit, to neighbors and nearby warehouse workers. Her inventory included liquor, cigarettes, sweets, fruits and pork. "Our parents' generation had rations. They have strong ideology and they really respect Kim Il Sung," said Yang, now 23. "But I don't know about rations. So we did private business."

Yang and her family's knowledge of grassroots capitalism, and of the outside world, were shaped inside North Korea through illicit, foreign media. The family secretly listened to outside radio reports, under the cover of blankets, for a decade. It was during these family radio sessions that the Yangs hatched an escape plan. Hoping to attract less attention by not traveling as a single group, they planned to defect in three operations. Yang's father escaped first in 2007. Aided by missionaries on the outside, her mother and two youngest siblings followed in a second escape trip. Joo Yang tried to follow her family in 2009 but failed. So her father sent money to Joo Yang to bribe North Korean officials and remain safe. When the situation grew too dangerous, she packed up and moved to another province. She strived not to attract attention by living a normal life that included attending college, and selling goods in the markets to pocket extra cash. But always, she was waiting for word from the outside.

Like Yang and Park, the scrappy persimmon seller, their experiences in private business are fairly typical for North Korean millennials. "They didn't rely on the government. They relied on themselves," said Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea, an international NGO. More of North Koreans' income, across age groups, is coming from market activities. Researchers Noland and Stephan Haggard, authors of "Witness to Transformation," surveyed North Korean refugees in South Korea and found that nearly half of respondents said all of their income was derived from private business activities at the time they left the North. As the state's food distribution system never recovered fully, the markets became a permanent fixture in the economy.

"Everything is 'I want, I want.' But I can't in North Korea." -Joo Yang

Park of the NGO is well versed on North Korea and international issues. He worked for the United Nations, and former British diplomat Carne Ross, who most notably testified on investigative intelligence blunders in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Park helps bring North Korean refugees out of China to safety, and free resettlement in South Korea and the U.S. Unable to seek asylum in China, refugees face more danger once they flee North Korea and head north into China. Heading directly south through a heavily fortified border, which separates the two Koreas, is not an option. The two Koreas are still technically at war since the Korean War cease-fire. About 36,000 Americans were killed during the conflict, from 1950 to 1953.

North Korea's fate is still tied to the U.S., and four other, neighboring global economies: South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. The U.S. has roughly 28,000 American troops stationed in South Korea. North Korea, meanwhile, is being run by Kim, a largely untested ruler, who also happens to be pursuing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. The United Nations Security Council last year ordered new economic sanctions in response to North Korea's nuclear tests in February 2013. If and when the nation collapses, the fear is a massive humanitarian crisis and refugee exodus. Hungry North Koreans could overwhelm South Korea, China, Russia, even Japan by boat.

As North Korea and its neighboring economies jockey for position, China is busy making hay as North Korea's largest trading partner. In 2013, North Korean trade totaled $8.6 billion, with 77.4 percent of that amount stemming from China, which accounted for $6.7 billion. That's according to estimates tracked by "North Korea: Witness to Transformation," a widely followed blog, led by Noland and Haggard. Other trade partners to a lesser degree include South Korea and Russia. China exports energy sources, consumer goods and food into North Korea.

This is a long way of saying the region is a mess of powers. And Park of Liberty in North Korea has a theory that ground-up, market-driven change among ordinary citizens, particularly millennials like Yang and Park, could ultimately help solve a problem like North Korea.

While the region's global economies churn, millennial Yang was selling goods in the markets, while dreaming of reuniting with her family in South Korea. Her mother hand-stitched Chinese brand names on South Korean clothes to ship to her daughter, as South Korean brands are banned in the North. Showing wiliness and grit, Yang also knew when to dip into her savings of Chinese yuan and American dollars to befriend and bribe officials inside North Korea. Then one night, Yang heard a small engine approach.

A man on a motorcycle emerged from the darkness. He had something from her father, who was living in South Korea. It wasn't money or clothes this time. It was a Toshiba laptop. The package included foreign DVDs and an MP3 music player that offered a glimpse of the outside world: South Korean dramas and James Bond movies. Yang watched young women driving. So Yang wanted to drive. She saw "Charlie's Angels" and was convinced that along with her two best girlfriends, they too were "Charlie's Angels." Through smuggled technology and media, Yang got a taste of freedom, and she wanted more. "Everything is 'I want, I want.' But I can't in North Korea."

North Korean defectors (from left to right) Heung Kwang Kim, Sang Hak Park and Yeonmi Park visited San Francisco this summer.
Source: Heesun Wee
North Korean defectors (from left to right) Heung Kwang Kim, Sang Hak Park and Yeonmi Park visited San Francisco this summer.

Silicon Valley to rogue state

It's a beautiful August weekend in San Francisco, and the public transit system bulges with commuters. But south of Market Street in the city's SOMA neighborhood, a homeless man idles in front of Code for America's office, a nonprofit aimed at narrowing the gap between private and public access to technology. Inside the warehouse, four North Korean defectors, including the persimmon seller Park, have traveled from South Korea to meet about 100 engineers, tech experts and human rights activists. Dubbed a hackathon, the gathering was organized by the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation. The group focused on a unique problem: How to secretly funnel technology and information into sealed North Korea.

Old school shortwave signals and radios have been used to capture outside news in totalitarian regimes for decades. But what if USB thumb drives on initial upload looked like video games, but buried inside were real Google maps? Was it possible to construct micro satellite receivers to capture outside signals?

North Korea does have a regime-controlled intranet, and outward-facing Internet, available only to select citizens whose activities are monitored. But the country's electrical grid can't support massive amounts of technology. Electricity is unreliable, and nighttime often is pitch black. If anyone is enjoying consistent Internet access and technology, it's North Korea's dedicated cybercrime unit.

Just ask Heung Kwang Kim, a North Korean defector and former computer science professor. Kim spent nearly 20 years in the regime educating promising students. The country's brightest are plucked and dispatched to North Korea's capital for special training. Before he escaped in 2003, Kim also analyzed seized contraband, including South Korean TV dramas and books. Despite the government's restrictions, more North Koreans are accessing outside media and technology. There are about 3.5 million computers in the North, plus the recent addition of about 1.5 million tablets, Kim estimates. That means about one in 50 North Koreans have access to some kind of computing device. About 3 million people also have cellphones that have no Internet access, and can only make calls within North Korea.

Foreign media, tech infiltrate North Korea
Foreign media, tech infiltrate North Korea   

Among the country's elite, there are at least 3,000 North Korean cyber warriors. And they've already orchestrated attacks on the South, ranging from personal email accounts to government and banking institutions, according to South Korean prosecutors. It didn't take long for the North Korean regime to discover that cyberterrorism is an effective, cheaper method of gathering intelligence than dispatching foot soldiers. Cybercrime, it turns out, is quite handy if you happen to be a totalitarian state.

Cyberterrorism also allows for potential widespread damage with little traceable evidence of perpetrators. "They [North Korean] learned plausible deniability is a really helpful approach to peacetime demonstration capabilities," said Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. "And the Kim family loves to call attention to itself because it proves they are a major power."

And in an ironic twist, North Korea's isolated cyber infrastructure allows for effective outbound attacks, but inbound attacks have limited reach, says former North Korean computer science professor Kim. He was cited in an August security briefing on North Korea's cyber landscape, with the research compiled by U.S.-based tech giant HP.

But for average citizens, accessing technology and outside media is a scavenger hunt that can include help from activists and nonprofit groups. A version of Korean Wikipedia, the free digital encyclopedia, has landed in North Korea on USB thumb drives. Defectors and human rights activists transport media through the North Korean-Chinese border, which is extremely dangerous. While there's intense security along the corridor, a few well-placed bills can buy passage of goods, defectors and activists say. Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system arrived in North Korea last year, tech expert Kim said. But most technology is imported from China.

Flying over East Asia in January 2014, astronauts took this night image of the Korean peninsula. Dark North Korea is difficult to detect, between China and South Korea.
Source: NASA
Flying over East Asia in January 2014, astronauts took this night image of the Korean peninsula. Dark North Korea is difficult to detect, between China and South Korea.

Kim agrees to on-camera interviews at his own risk. He evades specific questions about his old life in the North, and now leads a Seoul-based human rights group. Kim knows salient things about the regime's cyber operations. And the regime knows he knows things. That's why he moves around South Korea with private bodyguards, as do other high-level defectors. The regime, of course, is aware of technology and foreign media entering the country. They're not happy about it, and conduct periodic tech raids on private homes and buildings.

The experiences of defectors, including Kim and millennials Park and Yang, are compelling—surreal, even—though difficult to verify given the lack of access inside North Korea. But a landmark United Nations report released in February described real threats with real consequences. The commission of inquiry found wide-ranging human rights violations, and accused the regime of "crimes against humanity."

An estimated 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners are detained in four political prison camps. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in September called on North Korea to close its "evil system" of camps. North Korea issued its own human rights report, and said its citizens "enjoy genuine human rights."

But in the U.N. report's own words, "The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world."

North Korea's political prison camps
The UN released a landmark report on North Korea, and found crimes against humanity. Up to 120,000 prisoners are detained in four large, political prison camps, according to the report. The following are visual depictions of camp conditions from survivors.

Source: Human Rights Watch

Source: Human Rights Watch

Source: Human Rights Watch

Source: Human Rights Watch

Source: Human Rights Watch

Source: Human Rights Watch

Source: Human Rights Watch

Source: Human Rights Watch

Source: Human Rights Watch

Source: Human Rights Watch

Source: Human Rights Watch

Over the weekend, North Korea freed two American prisoners, as the international community figures out what to do about the landmark U.N. report. Efforts are underway to build a coalition to refer Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court for prosecution of crimes against humanity. Unlike previous resolutions intended to punish North Korea, the current draft being circulated includes specific language on the international court.

It's in this mashup of human rights violations, hacking cyberwarriors and millennials working in the black markets that persimmon seller Park reached a moment of clarity. When Park was around 11, she rewatched an imported copy of the 1997 blockbuster "Titanic." She had seen the film before, passed around family and friends. But she hadn't understood the movie as a child—two adults defying scripted destinies and expressing free will through love. Not love for the regime or a cult leader, but romantic love for another person. She didn't know that kind of human experience existed. Now she did.

"The movie showed me how people can just be free and that people are even making a movie for a love story," Park said. Watching the film inside North Korea, "I feel like I'm being revolutionary." What she didn't know at the time was the universe had plans for her. North Korea and its confluence of market forces and new currents of information and technology were about to collide, and create a Park-size window to freedom.

Kim Jong-Un inspects the command of Korean People's Army Unit 534.
KNS | AFP | Getty Images
Kim Jong-Un inspects the command of Korean People's Army Unit 534.

A North Korean Arab Spring?

Since the young Kim took over in 2011, he has been consolidating power. The execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in December 2013 suggests efforts to reign in North Korea's economic elite.

While North Korea from the outside may appear like a hungry nation stuck in a time warp, the regime has been busy building vast overseas trade networks for years. Often managed by military and political leaders who make up the elite, North Korean state trading companies generate millions for Kim and the ruling class. North Korean state trading firms, in turn, use Chinese middlemen to access China-based companies for foreign goods and services. Some of these cross-border transactions can yield Mercedes-Benzes and cognac, destined for North Korea.

The luxurious lifestyle of Kim Jong Un

Source: KCNA | North Korea

Living like rock stars

North Korea is a poor country, but Kim Jong Un and the elite live the good life. Spending on luxury goods rose to $645.8 million in 2012, according to a United Nations report released this year. North Korean officials even attempted to buy and import “high-end musical recording equipment,” according to U.N. documents.

Source: Duan Zidar | Getty Images

Cognac and whisky, please

For citizens who are the equivalent of North Korea’s 1 percent, alcohol—the good stuff—is plentiful. High-quality cognac and whisky worth nearly $17,300—intended for passage to North Korea—was seized in Italy, according to U.N. documents.

Source: Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images

Mercedes by the dozen

For North Korea’s ruling elite, privileges can include access to luxury wheels. As part of a confiscation in Italy of luxury goods, authorities seized a dozen Mercedes-Benzes intended for delivery to North Korea.

Source: M. Eric Honeycutt | E+ | Getty Images

Going Hollywood

Kim’s father, the late Kim Jong Il, reportedly was a major film fan. And the film bug may run in the family. North Korean officials tried to import equipment for a 1,000-person cinema valued at around $187,300, according to U.N. reports.

Source: Alex Schmidt | Getty Images

Tech gadgets

Other luxury items that have made their way into the North include household appliances, laptops and MP3 music players. But getting reliable electricity is a challenge. Satellite pictures of North Korea at night reveal darkness.

But another U.N. report released this March suggested more dire possibilities. A U.N. panel found a "mature, complex and international corporate ecosystem" of foreign-based North Korean firms and individuals to evade scrutiny of assets, financial and trade dealings. North Korea is experienced in using foreign-based individuals and shell companies—engaged in legitimate business—to mask illicit activities associated with sourcing nuclear, ballistic missile and other weapons of mass destruction.

International groups and researchers are intensely curious about overseas trade networks and North Korea's elite. Trusted by the regime, they enjoy privileges that can include taking commercial flights out of Pyongyang, driving foreign cars and living in lower-level apartments. No one likes to climb stairs amid unreliable electricity. Some North Korea watchers argue if any segment of the population is capable of triggering a mass rebellion, it could be the economic elite. But it's unclear how much autonomy if at all the elite enjoys, or if the group remains devoted to regime preservation. Pyongyang's propaganda machine also tells its top tier that their wealth would be wiped out in a South Korea-led unification of the peninsula.

Amid the regime's machinery, Kim's late uncle Jang managed to amass one of North Korea's largest and most powerful group of state trading firms. And Jang's execution eliminated, arguably, the most influential senior party official remaining from Kim's father's era, according to a 2013-2014 report from the Pentagon to Congress.

Of course, not all pockets of North Korea are experiencing such extremes. And not all citizens are plotting escapes, or trying to acquire precision machine tools to make WMDs. Most of North Korea's 99 percent is occupied with the daily business of living and making money. And it's this vast span of activities and experiences—state trading firms, prison camps, persistent hunger—that make North Korea tricky to grasp. Modest forms of capitalism, meanwhile, have allowed ordinary North Koreans to provide for themselves in ways the state no longer can. But for some citizens, change is not coming fast enough.

North Korean children carry hay on a road near Mount Kuwol in South Hwanghae province, North Korea.
Ng Han Guan | AP
North Korean children carry hay on a road near Mount Kuwol in South Hwanghae province, North Korea.

Joo Yang, still alone and surviving on wits and guile inside North Korea, got word from her family in 2010. Conditions improved for her to make a second attempt at freedom, and with the help of brokers, she escaped into China. She finally reunited with her family in South Korea in 2011.

Park—persimmon seller, revolutionary "Titanic" watcher—and her family decided to defect after her father was sentenced to a North Korean labor camp. The charge? Smuggling goods to China to make ends meet.

Park's sister escaped North Korea first, but the family lost contact with her. Park and her parents embarked on their own journey to freedom in 2007. But Park's father, who had been diagnosed with cancer, did not survive the trip. Park and her mother crossed the freezing Gobi Desert into Mongolia, using a compass they had managed to secure. They eventually arrived in South Korea, where they were accepted as refugees. Years later, a plea on South Korean television in search of her sister finally reunited the family.

For North Korean millennials still inside the country, black markets remain a part of their everyday lives. And while there's no Twitter, YouTube or Facebook to spark mass unrest, pared down technology like laptops, radios and USB sticks are making their way inside, and being shared and discussed. It's this powerful concoction of outside information and market activities that is fueling incremental transformation. And the younger generation is only getting older and wiser to the ways of the outside world.

"What it adds up to is this really significant social change whereby the North Korean millennials, or as we also call them the North Korean market generation, have this quite different relationship with the North Korean regime than their parents," said Park of Liberty in North Korea. "In the long term, this looks like it's going to be a really important factor for change."

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