Thanks to the flow of foreign information into the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea is changing from the inside out — and Kim Jong Un is running to catch up. The growing split between the North Korean people and the state is proving difficult for the Kim regime to reverse. The influx of foreign media and knowledge has been growing for years, and like the red pill from The Matrix, it has the power to transform North Koreans’ understanding of the world. It permeates all levels of North Korean life, and civilians are becoming increasingly self-aware.
North Koreans have long been forced to routinely break the law to get by. Following the collapse of the Public Distribution System in the 1990s, North Koreans created and relied on illegal city markets (Jangmadang) as their source of food, income, and other commodities. The markets initiated as a means of survival have become the main entry point for foreign information. Foreign media infiltrating the North — South Korean dramas, in particular — have done the most to reshape the way North Koreans view their southern neighbors and, in turn, their own realities. From fashion to an awareness of human rights, foreign ideas now increasingly color the lives of ordinary North Koreans.
Changes reflecting an increasing psychological independence from the regime manifest themselves in many ways, particularly in the emulation of South Koreans whom the North Koreans once pitied as impoverished puppets of the imperial United States. Outside of Pyongyang, younger generations have begun to embrace the short skirts considered fashionable in South Korea as well as skinny jeans and brighter colors. Adopting South Korean beauty standards, they have also deviated from the state-approved hairstyles in subtle yet noticeable ways. As North Korean women strive to perfect their appearance, they have become avid consumers of South Korean cosmetics, which are sold in the black markets. Plastic surgery is also gaining popularity, thanks to South Korean dramas. A surgery called a blepharoplasty, which transforms a mono-lid into a double-eyelid is now often performed at home, while among the elites, nose surgeries are surging in popularity.
Beyond emulating foreign trends, North Koreans are creating new ways to fulfill their individual desires. For a culture adamantly against premarital sex and kissing in public, the creation of the small-scale “room by the hour” industry indicates a 180-degree change in what is considered acceptable behavior. Such rooms are usually run by an ajumma, the Korean term for a married or marriage-aged woman, who rents out her home for an hour or two to give a couple time alone away from prying eyes.
This rise in materialism, individualism, and the pursuit of personal profit, brought about by the Jangmadangs and the flow of foreign information into North Korea, present unique security challenges for the regime. The markets continue to introduce ideas that directly counter state narratives and the population continues to seek out those ideas despite the punishments associated with being caught with foreign material. North Koreans have already shown a willingness to challenge the government in order to protect these new-found freedoms. Once people swallow the red pill, they are unlikely to blindly go back to serve their masters through the Matrix.
Resistance is not new in North Korea, it has occurred in varied forms since the inception of the North Korean state. From 2005-2009, the Kim regime enacted anti-market reforms which led to small-scale riots. The “Ajumma Revolution” is one example of North Korean resistance that sprung up from 2005-2009. In response to government edicts ordering women younger than 49 out of the markets, a group of women stood up to security forces and refused to leave their stalls, in some instances yelling and getting physical. The civilian backlash and negative effects of the new monetary policy led the regime to reverse course and resume its toleration of the markets.
The only way the Kim regime can maintain its grip on power is if it is able to successfully implement an economic opening in North Korea, and co-opt these trends. Citizens are becoming accustomed to foreign information and foreign goods — a process that cannot be reversed. It is too late to convince North Koreans to opt for the blue pill. If Kim Jong Un cannot satisfy his citizens’ material desires and become a transformative leader, he and North Korea will go the way of their communist predecessors in the Eastern Bloc.
Kelli Kennedy is a Korea affairs analyst and graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.