The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remains a nation-state unwilling to engage with the West through conventional international “norms” of diplomacy. As the Trump administration attempts to decide its policy on the hermit kingdom, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged by his Chinese counterpart to remain “cool-headed” over U.S.-DPRK tensions, it is time to situate these wider macro-level issues within a more micro and everyday context. Understanding what it means to be North Korean, whether juche is simply what it says on the tin, and the opportunities taken by North Koreans, both in the DPRK and abroad, are 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 we should do more than merely listen. These insights offer a vital direction for resolving a conflicting political relationship, largely based on perception and misperception, in the international arena. The state 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.
We have moved on from the rhetoric that Kim Jong-un, much like his father and grandfather, is “crazy” and “irrational,” As Andrei Lankov notes, agreeing with others such as David Kang and Victor Cha, to describe North Korea as a state that “defies the laws of physics” overlooks its highly calculative and pragmatic nature. Kim and his elite team in the Korean Workers’ Party are aware of the outside world, to a degree that cannot be ignored. It is all too simple to view the DPRK as passively “receiving” but not internalizing and acting upon discourse and rhetoric emanating from the West. Just as rhetoric aimed at the West and the DPRK’s neighbors from Pyongang is not merely dismissed by those at whom it is directed – despite the cognitive dissonance prevailing in the South – the North Korean state apparatus is all too aware of, and actively planning their next move against, Western pronouncements.
At the same time, in acknowledging this, we must also not forget the people of the DPRK. They, like Kim, 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 idea of nunchi, or, emotional intelligence, is extremely clear among North Koreans; repression and indoctrination has not suppressed their perception. A kind of “sense,” as Ki-hong Kim (1977) writes, nunchi applies more broadly to the wider Korean Peninsula, emphasizing how individuals understand context, norms, and values through their interactions with others. The irony of juche – “what man makes is his own destiny” – is evident in the clear clampdown on any forms of individual identity in the DPRK. Man is dictated his destiny, and cannot make it his own.
However, 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.
The economic crisis, floods, and famine of the 1990s catalyzed a gradual wave of marketization that slowly engulfed individual livelihoods in the country, offering a clear survival outlet for a country increasingly ravaged by famine and economic hardship, and the failure of the “socialist paradise” to provide basic food rations through the Public Distribution System. Individuals resorted to informal markets to barter and trade across the border with China. With these initiatives and survival strategies came an influx of information about the outside world. VCRs and DVDs became the early fulcrums for questioning the extant state ideology. With the development of telecommunications technology, North Koreans could 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. The 1995 enshrinement of songun (military-first) into official government policy was partly in response to the waning of faith in the state ideology, a way of preventing the declining interest in the edicts of the North Korean state message from spiraling into greater transformative potential. Yet, once something is learned, it cannot be unlearned. Growing access to information – whether through radio programs, Korean dramas, the role of the diasporic community, or even the simplest recognition that the country is not “paradise on Earth” – in cultivating a “hidden revolution” within the closed society of the DPRK could be one force for small, yet transformative, change in the minds, and attitudes, of North Koreans.
There has been a plethora of debate surrounding how best to engage with North Korea at the level of the state, yet we must not forget that state-level discourse is just one of many means of dialogue with North Korea. The 2014 UN COI Report into human rights violations in the DPRK concluded that first-hand dialogue with individual North Koreans is crucial in paving the path toward more productive engagement with the state. It is not simply about U.S. President Donald Trump, who, in wishing to “eat a hamburger” and “talk to” Kim Jong-un, could kickstart dialogue between the West and the DPRK; engagement can be far smaller in scale. Groups such as Choson Exchange and Open Radio for North Korea, in their projects of engagement via education, information exchange, and radio broadcasting into the DPRK, are the very essence of engaging with North Koreans within the country, whilst also emphasizing the role of North Koreans outside of the DPRK as pivotal in catalyzing exchange between the state and wider world.
A central element of such engagement is the role of the global defector community. 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. Elucidating such conflicting emotions illuminates the negotiations and struggles of identity faced by North Koreans, both within, and notably having escaped, their motherland. Emotions offer a pathway toward new social visions and worlds, yet memories of the old worlds do not fade: they can become stronger and more visible as spatial distance from the homeland increases. Borders between homeland and “destination” lands become sites of emotional performance, as Suk-Young Kim (2014) brilliantly demonstrates in reference to DMZ. The DMZ is not just a fixed site of global historical significance; it is a dynamic path of emotional affiliation, especially for North Korean defectors living in the South. Hence, a vital way to enhance interactions at a state-to-state level is to engage with such emotional experiences at the everyday level.
Being a North Korean defector in the U.K., for example, contains far less of a societal stigma attached than being a defector south of the 38th Parallel. The U.K. is witnessing a combination of North Korean and joseonjok immigrants in addition to the long-standing South Korean population in southwest London: each has their own story to tell, which must be listened to. The fascinating story of Monique Macias highlights the role of identity negotiations for North Korean defectors. Describing herself as “from Pyongyang,” yet born in Equatorial Guinea, Monique was exiled to Pyongyang in the care of Kim Il-sung until her teenage years, prior to being repatriated to Madrid.
The intricacies of the cultural identity of being North Korean can only be manifested through dialogues with individuals. The complexity of each Korea viewing itself as the Korea, rather than acknowledging a “one peninsula, two systems” approach, adds to the identity-based conflict at the level of the individual. Changes in individual affiliation with the state as a North Korean citizen, before, after, and, more importantly, during the process of defection, perhaps can inform understandings of the actions of the current KWP, especially following the notable defection of Thae Yong-ho from the DPRK embassy in London in 2016, and his perspective that the North Korean elite are, slowly but surely, turning against Kim.
Stories, testimonials, and narratives are powerful tools of analysis. For example, 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 can only be understood from the perspective of North Koreans themselves. Moreover, it 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. Analysts should not fall into the trap of viewing the DPRK as a “black box.” Just like any other country, it is dynamic, prone to change, even if this change means a change in the attitudes and modus vivendi of the people.
The DPRK could be seen as simply pursuing a policy of offensive realism à la Mearsheimer – seeking power and maximizing power whatever the cost, even the cost of being “othered” as an “outlier” pariah state, by the global community, as Robert S. Litwak writes – as evident in its continuing nuclear development. But is this it? Regime survival is understood as the obsession of the current Kim regime. Yet to address these macro problems, we must start from below.
Though we are highly unlikely to see a popular revolution in the DPRK in a similar vein to the Arab Spring, or the efforts of Vaclav Havel during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, we must not forget, in Havel’s own words, the power of the powerless. Rather, we must enhance this through ongoing engagement, debate, and discussion with North Korean people themselves. Though North Koreans inside and outside of the country may seem powerless, they are far from it. Their nunchi is some of the strongest amongst the global population, and they, like Kim Jong-un himself, are by no means oblivious to the outside world. International relations is not just about the state; it is crucially about the people of the state.
The only way we can even try to talk with North Korea, is to start talking with North Koreans.
Edward Howell is an Economic and Social Research Council International Relations scholar at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford