LES SILLARS: When I started reporting this story, I thought that North Koreans listen to foreign shortwave broadcasts huddled fearfully in their closets. Late at night. On contraband radios. With the volume way down lest a neighbor overhears and turns them in to be executed.
But when I ran this image past Suzanne Scholte, one of the founders of Free North Korea Radio, she said it’s not quite like that anymore.
SCHOLTE: Yeah, I think in 1998 if you got caught you would be sent in for detention, questioned, possibly sent to a political prison camp if they found out about some of the programs you heard. But now they’ve decriminalized it because there are so many people that are getting outside information.
These days, people are cautious. They use earphones. They don’t show strangers their screens. But they don’t need to be as paranoid. Experts estimate that perhaps 60 percent of North Koreans regularly get information from outside the country. That’s over half of 25 million people.
SCHOLTE: You may be interviewed … but you're not likely to be executed or sent to a detention center like you may have been in the 80s and 90s just because they'd have to lock up most of the country.
Last time we introduced you to Suzanne Scholte.
SCHOLTE: Hello North Korea!
Kim Seong Min.
KIM SEONG MIN: KOREAN
And the program that they founded together: Free North Korea Radio. Today, the conclusion of our two-part series on Free North Korea Radio and the people of North Korea. I’m Les Sillars.
In some ways the country has changed pretty dramatically in the last 20 years. As we’ll hear today, North Korea’s information blockade is crumbling. But the Kim regime still has nuclear missiles, Chinese backing, and a relentless propaganda machine. So how is all this going to play out? Let’s find out together.
Surveys of defectors indicate that Free North Korea Radio is one of the most popular foreign radio shows.
SCHOLTE: How many is it? A quarter of those are listening or a third of those listening? I don't know. But it’s...
SILLARS: But you would estimate it’s in the millions a day?
SCHOLTE: Oh yeah definitely.
North Korea isn’t really a Hermit Kingdom anymore. But that’s not because the Kim regime suddenly decided to open up. The changes in North Korea go back to the Arduous March—we talked about that last time. That’s the famine that devastated North Korea from 1994 through about 1998. Experts believe it killed from one to three million people. Because of the famine, Scholte said,
SCHOLTE: … well, the women of North Korea created a capitalist system …
When she told me that, I thought, wait—what? Capitalism in North Korea? To explain this, she pointed me to a panel in Washington in 2019. The Center for Strategic & International Studies hosted it. On it were a couple of Free North Korea Radio staffers including Kim Ji-young. She did the review of the Korean sushi rolls we heard last time. Here she is through an interpreter who was with the panel.
KIM JI YOUNG: Hello, my name is Kim Ji-young and I became a South Korean citizen. (translated)
Kim Ji-young grew up in an elite family in a town near the Chinese border. She was very patriotic.
KIM JI YOUNG: I often said I could sacrifice myself to the Dear Leader. However the Arduous March … fundamentally changed my identity as a devoted follower of the regime. (translated)
After Kim Il Sung died, followed by the floods, the socialist food distribution system broke down almost completely. There was enough international aid to prevent serious famine. But the regime elites used the aid for themselves. Soon almost everybody else was starving. Near Kim Ji-young’s home, women started bartering their possessions for food.
KIM JI YOUNG: So many people are starving, and some of them start to sell alcohol and tofu they made in their home. (translated)
Most men still had to show up for their jobs, even if there was nothing to do. The women went out to find food however they could. That led to informal and illegal markets called “jangmadang.”
KIM JI YOUNG: It was started and driven solely by women’s determination to get food for their families. (translated)
Some traveled to ports to buy fish to trade in the mountain areas. Along the border they slipped into China and smuggled back food. Those tiny operations quickly scaled up. Women who had started businesses to support their families—
KIM JI YOUNG: … learned that the more money they had, the more revenue they could raise. (translated)
The regime initially tried to shut down these markets. But everybody was starving to death, including police and prosecutors. They needed bribes to survive. The crackdown fizzled. In 2002 the regime legalized many of the markets and started taxing them. The others it has largely ignored since then. Over a few years the markets exploded. You could get—
KIM JI-YOUNG: … dried squid … (translated)
KIM JI-YOUNG: … clothes, shoes, curtains for homes … (translated)
… made on smuggled sewing machines.
KIM JI-YOUNG: The renters living in the state-owned houses secretly traded the rights of their houses for money, which led to the emergence of the housing market. (translated)
Which led to the emergence of the housing market, leading to real estate speculators …
KIM JI-YOUNG: … the financial market … (translated)
KIM JI-YOUNG: … private money exchangers in the markets … (translated)
A transportation industry, of all things. One woman on the panel, a teacher, described how she got into wholesaling stolen diesel oil. People were making money. It wasn’t exactly Wall Street. Then again … it was North Korea. In the mid-2000s Kim Ji-young, freshly graduated from Kim Il Sung University, decided to become a restauranteur. She rented the second story of a state-owned restaurant for five thousand dollars US down and one-fifty per month.
KIM JI YOUNG: According to what was reported to the regime, myself and all of my employees were just another service of the state-run restaurant. (translated)
The place held 200 people. She hired three servers for a dollar a day each and two cooks for two bucks each. They made 200 times what they’d make working for the regime.
KIM JI YOUNG: … I could say my employees loved me more than Kim Jong Il. (translated)
Her profits: One hundred-fifty dollars per day. Kim Ji-young defected in 2013 and later joined Free North Korea Radio for a while. She is now a committed capitalist, and said she’s not alone. The regime has made some efforts to control the markets but—
KIM JI YOUNG: Even under strict control of the regime, North Koreans learned capitalism, and are now the pioneers of their own fate armed with a capitalist mindset. (translated)
The jangmadang created a cross-border smuggling and trade infrastructure. For the first time, many North Koreans had a bit of money and access to communication technologies. Shortwave radios. Cell phones and networks near the Chinese border. Media players called “Notels” on which they play South Korean soap operas.
The Kim regime might not like it, but it can’t stop it. And the more information gets in, the more information North Koreans want. Through the jangmadang, North Koreans are slowly discovering the world outside North Korea. That makes it more and more difficult for the regime to exert control over people. But now the question is, how well does the outside world understand North Korea and the complicated geo-politics of the region? And does the outside world understand the Korean Peninsula well enough to prevent a meltdown?
SCHOLTE: I was with a diplomat from the South Korean embassy.
It was August 15, 1999.
SCHOLTE: And I said I've got to go talk to him because I sent him all this information about what was going on then, the human rights abuses...
Suzanne Scholte was at a posh Korean Independence Day event at the South Korean embassy in Washington.
SCHOLTE: And he was like oh Suzanne I don't know if you should do that because it's not very diplomatic, right?
At the time, former Secretary of Defense William Perry was working on a report about North Korea for President Bill Clinton. Scholte spotted Perry across the room.
SCHOLTE: I just marched right over to him and I said Dr. Perry, Dr. Perry, Suzanne Schulte, and I sent you a box of information, all this information about North Korea's human rights violations and what's going on in the political prison camps, did you have a chance to read it?
Tensions between the two countries were high. North Korea did not yet have nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence had discovered that North Korea was working on obtaining bomb-grade uranium.
SCHOLTE: And he said yes. My tears were on the pages. And I said are you going to include this in your report to President Clinton? And he said, no, we have to deal with the nuclear issue first.
That was, and is, conventional wisdom in the international community. Get North Korea to denuclearize. Then it will open up. Over time, human rights in North Korea will improve. Seven years after the Perry Report, in 2006, President George W. Bush made this announcement.
BUSH: Last night the government of North Korea proclaimed to the world that it had conducted a nuclear test.
Today, fifteen years after that first nuclear test, the Kim regime remains committed to building its nuclear arsenal. For 40 years western nations have put human rights on the backburner while they try to stall or derail Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Every so often the Kim regime tests another weapon, leading to sanctions, then negotiations, then concessions. More aid from South Korea and the West. It’s been a cycle of provocation, extortion, reward, and broken promises.
So, what to do? Diplomacy or confrontation? Economic and cultural engagement? Do you seek regime change? Double down on sanctions? And as the cracks widen in North Korea’s information blackout, how does that change things? All paths have risks, including the real possibility of war. And what about China? It’s heavily invested in keeping North Korea afloat, at least for now.
MAXWELL: If there is conflict on the Peninsula, it is going to have regional effects, China, Japan, Russia, and of course South Korea, but those regional effects could certainly have global effects.
David Maxwell is a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
MAXWELL: Miscalculation by any of the parties could lead to a global conflict.
For the next few minutes we’ll consider the scope of the problem. It’s pretty complicated, but we’ll narrow it down to three major factors: First, Juche, the foundation of North Korean ideology; second, the North’s relationship with South Korea; and third, China. Then we’ll look at how the efforts of organizations like Free North Korea Radio fit into all this. What do they hope to accomplish in a North Korean culture already saturated in totalitarian propaganda? What’s the end game? Western governments have struggled to deal with the North Korean regime since the Soviets installed Kim Il Sung in 1948. There are no easy answers. But there might, there just might, be a bit of hope.
NORTH KOREA STATE TV: NEWS ANCHOR
We’ll start by going back to the death of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il in 2011. Here’s North Korean state TV with the announcement on Dec. 19th.
KOREAN VOICE: STATE ANCHOR
And here’s what state television broadcast later to show how ordinary citizens reacted to the news.
AP RAW KIM JONG IL DEATH: PUBLIC MOURNING
This Associated Press clip shows a crowd of well over a hundred people in a Pyongyang store. They’re packed around a television. They aren’t just weeping. They’re convulsed with grief, tears running down their cheeks. Some collapse against the TV. This happened all over the country.
By Western standards it seems excessive, possibly staged. But many North Korean escapees report that they were genuinely shattered. As we described last time, Suzanne Scholte was the first person to bring North Korean defectors to the United States to testify about the Kim regime’s human rights abuses.
SCHOLTE: Just to give you one example, a very bright, bright young woman who lived in Pyongyang, who I brought to testify in the United States, and she said when Kim Jong Il died she thought she was going to die.
The Dear Leader is a supernatural figure to many North Koreans.
SCHOLTE: She's like, why am I still here? Because that's how much they are brainwashed. She couldn't even think, well, why am I still around if our God died? Why aren't we all dead? That's how powerful that brain washing is.
This “brainwashing,” as Scholte puts it, is Juche, the state ideology we’ve mentioned before. The regime says Juche is a man-centered approach to national independence. Not a religion. But it sure looks like one.
Some elements resemble Christianity, but they’ve been deeply corrupted. Writer Thomas Belke lays this out in his book titled Juche. God the Father is North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. He’s the, quote, “eternal, immortal Great Leader.” There’s a God the Son. That’s the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. He enforces the revolutionary teachings of Juche. Meals often end with a kind of prayer to Kim Il Sung: “Thank you Father for Kim Jong Il.”
And Juche functions as a kind of Holy Spirit. Juche teaches a, quote, “incarnational theory,” unquote, of political immortality called Su-ryong. The gist is that your life as an individual isn’t important. What matters is the socio-political life you have as a member of the nation. You receive this life in exchange for loyalty to the leader.
The point is that Kim Jong Un’s power—and the structure that maintains the elite class—isn’t just political power. It’s based on Juche. Under Juche, there is no conceivable alternative to the Kim regime. Attacking Kim Jong Un is an attack on the spiritual identity of the North Korean people. Consider this video that the Trump administration made for Kim Jong Un for the 2018 U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore. It feels like a movie trailer.
SINGAPORE SUMMIT: TRUMP VIDEO: A story about a special moment in time, when a man is presented with one chance that may never be repeated. What will he choose? To show vision and leadership? Or not?
It’s not subtle. Kim Jong Un has a choice, says the video: war and devastation or progress, peace, and prosperity. It’s the same choice the U.S. has been offering for 40 years. But for Kim Jong Un, “denuclearization” is just a Western imperialist word for surrender. Juche has no room for a Korea without a Kim as ruler.
SCHOLTE: So that's been a terrible mistake believing we could come to some negotiation with the regime that has no intention of giving up the nuclear weapons, believing we can do that while ignoring the suffering that's going on in the country has been a terrible, terrible mistake that's been repeated by every president.
Worse, Scholte says, it feeds the Kim regime’s propaganda. When the Americans show up at negotiations and all they want to talk about is denuclearization, it confirms the Kim regime’s story of American aggression.
SCHOLTE: If you are a North Korean you are lied to by the Kim regime, who says to you, you may be doing without, but I'm protecting you from the horrible Americans who want to destroy North Korea and want to destroy you, the Yankee imperialist wolves.
MAXWELL: We say that, North Korea, its vital national interest is the survival of the Kim family regime.
David Maxwell again.
MAXWELL: Not survival of the nation state, not survival of the Korean people in the North, but survival of the regime. And to do that the only outcome to ensure survival will be reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
And that brings us to the second point: the North’s relationship with South Korea. If Kim Jong Un thought he could unify Koreas by force, he would try. He has thousands of artillery cannons and rocket launchers parked along the DMZ. He doesn’t because American and South Korean forces would, in the end, overwhelm the North. But at a huge cost in lives from all three countries. And that’s if China stays out of it.
So South Korea is in a difficult spot. But critics of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in charge his government has gone beyond mere appeasement.
Take, for example, the Moon government’s crackdown on pro-democracy information activists. Various groups have for years used balloons and plastic bottles to float information into North Korea by air and by sea.
FORMOSA NEWS: Just behind North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walks his sister Kim Yo Jong.
But in June of 2020 Kim Jong Un’s sister, widely regarded as a major new power in the regime, had had enough of the leaflets. Kim Jo-Yong called the information activists “human scum” and “mongrel dogs” and threatened to send troops into the Demilitarized Zone. Then she blew up the joint liaison office in the DMZ. From Formosa News.
FORMOSA NEWS: Days ago she issued a warning that the North-South joint liaison office would be destroyed. And that’s exactly what happened. [Explosion] On Wednesday North Korean state media released this footage …
So Moon folded. Last year the South Korean government passed legislation outlawing leaflet drops and other kinds of information activism. It began harassing dozens of these organizations. Tax audits. Surveillance. Office raids. Cuts to government grants.
Olivia Enos, an Asia analyst with the Heritage Foundation, says there’s a charitable way to look at this. She points out that Seoul is only about 30 miles from the DMZ.
ENOS: Artillery shelling has the potential to kill millions of residents of Seoul and if they believe tamping down rhetoric, tamping down efforts to promote human rights in North Korea, diminishes the risk to geographic South Korea of a potential military threat, it's not entirely illogical.
But cracking down on free speech and open markets undermines the message to the North Koreans that South Korea supports human rights, Enos added.
ENOS: I think it's very unfortunate that we've seen this turn under the Moon administration.
David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies says that Moon’s approach confirms to North Korea that blackmail diplomacy works. He adds that North Korea has nuclear weapons at all in part because of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy. After the famine years of the Arduous March the North was in desperate straits. But the South gave it billions of dollars in aid from 1997 to 2007.
MAXWELL: And the Sunshine Policy provided resources for the North, likely prevented the collapse of the regime, and they used those resources to build their nuclear program and in 2006 tested their first nuclear weapon.
Several people on Moon’s national security team were part of pro-Communist student groups in the 1980s. Moon himself was jailed twice as a radical student activist.
MAXWELL: This is why people look at the Moon administration with a very skeptical eye and worry that there are too many people who have close ties to the North.
But there’s an even bigger issue: the unification of the Koreas. One sacred teaching of Juche is the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under the Kim regime. One of Kim Jong Il’s titles was “lodestar of national reunification.” But that’s not just a North Korean goal. Many Koreans in both countries would like to see a unified Korea, including President Moon Jae-in. He told Fox News through an interpreter in 2018 that unification will come after the North denuclearizes.
FOX NEWS: Baier: Which is your top priority: unification, or denuclearization? Moon: My top priority is peace, and if we have solid peace, I believe unification will come naturally as well. And in order to achieve peace, the prerequisite would be denuclearization.
But if the Koreas unite, will it look more like free, democratic South Korea? Or the totalitarian North? Critics say Moon wants to turn the whole peninsula into a milder version of North Korea.
CHANG: I think that he really wants to do this.
Gordon G. Chang is a China analyst and author of The Coming Collapse of China. He thinks that Moon’s hard-left economic policies and his history suggest that he really wants to establish socialism in a unified Korea. He’s limited because South Korea has a democratic government.
CHANG: But if he could do what he wants to do he would formally merge South Korea and North Korea and I think he would impose a strict socialism in the South so it would be a very different South Korea. It wouldn’t be a democracy, it wouldn’t be a free market society, it would resemble in many respects what we see today in North Korea.
What’s more, Chang says, Moon hopes to align this unified Korea with China.
CHANG: Moon Jae-in, if it were up to him, he would end the alliance with United States, throw out American troops, and essentially become a satellite of China.
And that brings up the third factor—what does China want in all this?
KIM IL SUNG AND MAO: AUDIO: FANFARE, AND KOREAN VOICE
This is a 1961 propaganda film depicting meetings between Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Kim regime, and China’s Chairman Mao. They’re shaking hands. Then they’re having a quiet chit-chat in comfy chairs. Then sharing a private joke. It’s all very cozy. But it’s a propaganda film. Historically, relations between the two countries have been strained. David Maxwell says that goes all the way back to North Korea’s founding.
MAXWELL: China well remembers how Kim Il Sung duped both Stalin and Mao in 1950 into starting a war and of course prevented Mao from unifying China.
He’s referring to how Kim Il Sung invaded the South in 1950 on his own, against the Soviets’ instructions. That drew American and United Nations forces onto the Peninsula.
NEWSREEL: … the peoples of the free world, acting out of the United Nations, have given their answer, and the United States, in a swift bold decision, has already gone into action. Air power first …
The Soviets refused to send troops. So China had to send soldiers to bail out Kim Il Sung. And that whole mess upended Chinese plans to invade Taiwan. The three-year Korean War ended with the DMZ. Seventy years later American forces are still there and Taiwan is still independent.
China is not happy about all that. But China, for now, is continuing to prop up Pyongyang. It’s hoping that propaganda film showing Kim Il Sung all snuggled up to Mao will become a twenty-first century reality. It would like to use the Kim regime as a lever to pry the Americans out of the region.
KIM IL SUNG AND MAO: KOREAN MUSIC FROM PROPAGANDA FILM CONTINUES
And if the Kim regime collapses, the Chinese worry that North Korean refugees would flood across the border into China. That would cause China huge security and economic headaches. And where would North Korea’s nuclear weapons end up in the chaos? Whose finger will be on the red button? It’s like something out of Mission Impossible.
Chang says that China provides just enough aid to keep the Kim regime operating. It sends North Korean escapees back. And it doesn’t completely shut down the border to smugglers. China could, given its surveillance capacity, and with enough troops. But if the jangmadang markets can’t operate, North Koreans will soon be starving again. Chang says that neither Beijing nor Pyongyang wants that. So the border remains closed but porous.
SILLARS: They make it dangerous enough that not everybody can do it but open enough that both sides get what they want?
So, what’s the end game? If the information activists like Free North Korea Radio win, what are the best and worst case scenarios?
CHANG: You can’t rule anything out. The worst scenario is thermonuclear war, which is always on the table. But the best scenario, and I think this is the more likely one, would be that the North Korean people get sick and tired of the Kim family. They get rid of it, and they struggle their way to a democratic system and free markets.
It’s happened before.
ABC NEWS 1990: And that very night, for the first time since 1961, they made a hole in the Berlin Wall.
That’s from an ABC News story on the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. Scholte believes—or maybe “hopes” is a better word—that a similar kind of peaceful regime change is possible in North Korea.
SCHOLTE: But we need to be reaching out to the people of the regime saying yes there is an alternative. Without Kim, North Korea can open up to reform, and you will have all these partners that want to help you.
It won’t be easy. North Korea is not Eastern Europe. People can’t just shake off the effects of years of propaganda like waking up from a dream. Propaganda can be very powerful in the hands of a ruthless government, as George Orwell warned.
O’BRIEN: Do you remember writing in your diary, freedom is the freedom to say, two plus two equals four?
In this scene late in Orwell’s famous dystopian novel, 1984, O’Brien is torturing the protagonist, Winston. This clip is from director Michael Radford’s version.
O’BRIEN: How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?
O’BRIEN: And if the Party says there are not four, but five, then how many?
WINSTON: How can I help what I see in front of my eyes? Two and two makes four.
O’BRIEN: Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they’re five. Sometimes they’re three. Sometimes they’re all of them at once.
In the end, of course, Big Brother wins. The book closes, quote, “Everything was all right. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
Daniel J. Mahoney is a professor at Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts and an expert on totalitarian regimes. The Kim regime, he points out, combines layers of propaganda with Juche.
MAHONEY: You know this multi-layered system of lies that people are obliged to repeat and many of them probably believe it after a while … it's still the most complete system of totalitarianism existing in the world.
Mahoney points out that force can only go so far. The Kim regime can only imprison and torture and kill so many people. If you’re going to exert totalitarian control over a culture, first you have to get people to say what you want. You have to get them to repeat the lies. Mahoney calls it “linguistic despotism.” If you force people to repeat the lie often enough, they start to believe the lie. Then they start to live according to the lie. That’s why Mahoney says that in North Korea language, not force, is the, quote, “ultimate source of control.”
MAHONEY: I think it really is this linguistic despotism where these forced affirmations of these tyrannical clichés really structures every aspect of life.
On the other hand, you might say that propaganda is both the foundation of the Kim regime’s power and, in a way, its biggest vulnerability. That’s why, in Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother cracked down on Winston because he dared to put into words a truth. Something that’s true regardless of what the regime said.
MAHONEY: Winston Smith writes in his notebook, two plus two equals four. And he says everything stands or falls by this. That was Orwell's great insight, that the most profound anti totalitarian act was not a political act because those political acts are not really possible in places like North Korea.
Orwell recognized that to defeat propaganda, you have to see and live, not according to the lie, but according to truth.
MAHONEY: It was a kind of existential affirmation to not participate in the realm of lies, to have the mental and spiritual clarity to see what's before one.
That’s where broadcasters like Free North Korea Radio come in. Just like during the Cold War. You put forward the case for human freedom and dignity. Information prepares people for freedom. It helps them imagine a life without Juche. Without the Kim regime.
MAHONEY: And you break through that, you know, that suffocating fog of totalitarian mendacity. Their weapon has to be truth sincerely and seriously affirmed.
So, will truth sincerely and seriously affirmed bring freedom to North Korea? If change does come, it will probably take decades, Chang says.
CHANG: This is a multi-decade campaign to change North Korea for the better. I don't know how much longer it'll take but nonetheless this I think is what the Kim rulers fear the most. They fear outside influences.
SCHOLTE: So I absolutely believe there are people in power in the regime that want to see change come to North Korea. I absolutely believe that.
SCHOLTE: But what choice do they have when they wake up in the morning? They have to be totally devoted to Kim Jong Un or see their family killed, tortured and killed in front of them, and have themselves killed or all sent to a political prison camp to a slow death. They don't see any alternative … So I've always believed that peaceful change could come to North Korea if we were to encourage those reformers in the regime, those double thinkers, those people who don't think there is a choice that there is a choice … and I think that's what we should be trying to do and the most important way to do that is by getting information into North Korea.
MUSIC: POTATO PRIDE
In the mid-1990s, the Kim regime put out a song called “Potato Pride.” It recounts how an old man, quote, “on the day of potato distribution,” holds a birthday party and serves all these delicious potato dishes. Chewy spiced potatoes. Potato doughnuts. Potato pancakes.
And the chorus: Oh ho ho. Potato pride.
MUSIC: POTATO PRIDE
What’s odd about this is that potatoes are not a staple in Korea. The food of choice is rice. The song came out during the Arduous March. There was no rice, so the regime was reduced to promoting the humble spud as an alternative.
In recent months, according to nknews.org, the Kim regime has restarted its eat more potatoes campaign. It’s playing songs like Potato Pride. It’s rerunning pro-potato movies on TV. For example, one is about a group of loyal young revolutionaries who fill an infertile valley with potato fields. This is a cooking show on KCNA, the state broadcaster.
KCNA COOKING: MUSIC
Nknews.org reports that shows like it are now featuring potato recipes.
All this indicates that the food shortages North Korea watchers predicted when the COVID-19 pandemic hit are well underway. In the spring of 2020 North Korea completely locked down its borders. It said it was COVID-free, although nobody believed it. Trade with China dropped by eighty percent. Then in the summer of 2020 the country was hit with a series of crop-killing floods.
BBC FLOODS: Reporter: Hour after hour, North Korean reporters broadcast live from successive typhoons. The destruction wrought on this fragile country was seen in real time, a first for this usually secretive state. Kim Jong Un went to see the damage for himself, and raised concerns about vital harvests.
The BBC, citing South Korean sources, also reported this past March that the jangmadang markets are still operating, but it’s not clear how many goods are available. Human Rights Watch said barely any food is getting into the country and called the situation, quote, “dire.”
The situation is so desperate that in April even Kim Jong Un admitted there might be a problem. He called on the Party to, quote, “wage another more difficult arduous march in order to relieve our people the difficulty, even a little.” End quote. The regime hasn’t used the words “arduous march” to describe its circumstances since the late 1990s.
In state photos released this summer, Kim Jung Un himself appears to have lost weight. Although in his case it’s much more likely to be a political gesture than an actual shortage of food. In April the Biden administration completed its North Korea policy review. That calls for a, quote, “calibrated practical approach,” a spokesman told reporters.
WHITE HOUSE: Our goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula …
The U.S. will pressure Kim Jong Un to give up nuclear weapons but it will not seek a, quote, “grand bargain.” No mention of human rights, although the State Department did put out a statement supporting the annual North Korea Freedom Week, held at the end of April. It promised to investigate human rights violations and support, quote, “access to independent information for the North Korean people.”
Words are cheap, of course. Olivia Enos of the Heritage Foundation says the Obama administration applied some sanctions to North Korea but failed to emphasize human rights.
ENOS: And so if that continues under a Biden presidency I would be worried about the extent to which the U.S. will be promoting values abroad.
MUSIC: MORANBONG BAND
On the other hand, the short-term prospects for the Moranbong Band look pretty good. In 2014 South Korean media reported that the band’s leader and sometime consort of Kim Jong Un, Hyon Song-wol, was executed. But Hyon Song-wol reappeared a short time later and in 2017 was appointed to the powerful Worker’s Party of the Central Committee. She also appears regularly in public at Kim Jong Un’s side.
Initially the Moranbong Band seemed to signal a new approach to propaganda for the Kim regime. A little less strident. A little more hip. An attempt to appeal to, not just control, the youth brought up with jangmadang markets.
But in recent months the regime has returned to its old ways. A few months ago Kim Jung Un called k-pop a, quote, “vicious cancer,” reported the New York Times. The paper added that Kim Jong Un recently ordered officials all over the country to stamp out capitalist tendencies. And he’s cracking down on people who view foreign media, especially from South Korea. This is from North Korea Now.
NK NOW: In December last year, North Korea has imposed new antireactionary thought law to prevent its citizens from being exposed to outside cultural influences, including South Korea entertainment. The details were not disclosed, but according to South Korean national intelligence service, anyone caught importing banned materials from the South could face a life sentence or death. And anyone caught watching it could face up to 15 years in prison.
Clearly, the pandemic-induced economic hardship, combined with waves of outside information, has left the regime feeling vulnerable. So it’s trying to clamp down. Ironically, there’s more than a hint of South Korea in the Moranbong Band. I doubt “Let’s Study” made young people rush out and hit the books. But I wonder if the Kim regime is starting to regret the direction symbolized by the Moranbong Band. It kind of hinted at openness. It kind of suggested a different approach to propaganda.
Last year I showed the Moranbong Band to Hye Ji. She defected from North Korea in 1999 and has been an editor for Free North Korea Radio off and on since 2004. She says Moranbong Band is far more Western than anything the regime would have allowed 25 years ago. The translator is Johnny Park.
HYE JI: She said that in a way yes that band would influence the people of North Korea, the way that they conceive the regime. (translation by Johnny Park)
Hye Ji herself was a propaganda officer in a northern coastal city during the Arduous March. She used to drive around town in this little car with a loudspeaker on top.
HYE JI: In the morning when people go to work she would often drive with the car with the big speaker to one of the statues of Kim Il Sung. (translation by Johnny Park)
She’d pick up the microphone.
HYE JI: KOREAN VOICE: And start saying something along the line of please keep your loyalty regardless of adversities that you are facing today. (translation by Johnny Park)
In response, the comrades would give her dirty looks. And her neighbors would mock her when they saw her coming home.
HYE JI: On her way back to her place, her neighbors would say this exact word: “Do they feed you for doing what you do? Did you eat breakfast? You don’t look good. I mean, do they not feed you for doing this? (translation by Johnny Park)
Of course, the regime wasn’t feeding anybody. She was starving, and so was her son, who was then about three. To stay alive, Hye Ji used to collect seaweed on the beach to make soup. Or she would collect the fibrous soy bean residue that local tofu-making shops had thrown out. Normally the residue goes to feed livestock. She’d boil it up with a bit of salt.
On very rare occasions she’d find a piece of candy.
HYE JI: Say you do get a piece of candy. You have to divide them into tiny, tiny pieces. So, when you think, that wow, like, I’m going to die if I don’t take this piece of candy or do not take more sugar, that’s the moment that you take these tiny pieces of candy. (translation by Johnny Park)
But even then defecting didn’t seem like a real option. Everybody knew the regime was lying to them about life inside North Korea. But Hye Ji stayed because she didn’t know about life outside North Korea. In her mind, South Korea and the West were horrible places.
Finally, she did find a way to slip across the border into China, and then make her way to South Korea. She managed to arrange for her son to be smuggled out a few years later. If she had known earlier what South Korea was really like, she says, she would have acted sooner.
JOHNNY PAR: She said absolutely because the reason why she decided to defect from North Korea is because she wanted to have this freedom and she did not want to die of starvation of course so if she had heard or listened to these pro South Korean radio broadcasts that would have definitely encouraged her and that would have made her decide sooner to defect from North Korea.
Now North Koreans again face severe hunger. But this time, they already know about the outside world. What are they going to do if and when they have a chance to leave? What if there’s a chance for change?
As for Free North Korea Radio, it’s in a very difficult period. The organization has to raise about $10,000 per month in donations just to cover the broadcasting fees. The staff in Seoul is down to a handful of people, and most are working without pay. But Kim Seong Min and his people are still broadcasting.
KIM SEONG MIN: VOICE
Suzanne Scholte keeps going because of an experience in the mid-1990s. It was soon after she first met North Korean defectors. Their stories were so awful, so painful, that she couldn’t sleep. Lying awake one night, she realized that God was telling her something. Something very specific.
SCHOLTE: He said, well, I was just answering your prayer, and I just, and I was like, Oh my God. I had prayed in the 1990s that God would break my heart for what was breaking His heart and at that moment I knew what was happening in North Korea was breaking God's heart.
Suzanne Scholte adds that North Koreans are incredibly resilient.
SCHOLTE: And when you think about the kind of tyranny they live under but they've been able to get by and continue—so I’ve got a lot of hope for the future for them.
For Scholte the freedom of the Gospel is in a way foundational to political freedom. She says that’s why the program will always include the Gospel message.
SCHOLTE: Well I'm hoping that will open up the people of North Korea to the truth and that what everybody all the defectors and I believe that the truth will set them free.
Western countries can make a big difference in North Korea by, as Scholte said, continuing to pump true information into North Korea. But of course, as Scholte understands, the truth is not just information. The Truth is much more than that. The Truth is a person. As Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."
This podcast comes from the creative team that brings you The World and Everything In It. I’m Les Sillars. Source material includes audio from ABC News, Arirang News, The Associated Press, The BBC, CNN, Movietone Newsreels, and Free North Korea Radio.
We hope you enjoyed this program and that you’ll tell others about it. And tell us what you think: you can write [email protected] or call our listener line and record a message: 202-709-9595.
Thanks. And see you next time.
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.