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Mon. August 19, 2019
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Accelerating Change in North Korea
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North Korea has for decades employed three pillars of control over its population: fear, control of people’s livelihoods, and control of information. Grassroots trends in North Korean society in recent years have eroded the North Korean regime’s control of people’s livelihoods and control of information, damaging two of the three pillars of state control. If the US and its allies want to end the perpetual state of crisis on the peninsula, they should work to actively encourage and facilitate these trends, directing their efforts against the already weakened pillars to accelerate the bottom up change in North Korea,.  

The Unresolvable North Korea Problem

Following North Korea’s February 2017 ballistic missile test, the first test since Donald Trump became president, 2017 already looks like a year of uncertainty for the Korean Peninsula. There is uncertainty in what President Trump’s policy will be toward the region. There is uncertainty surrounding South Korea’s leadership in the wake of the President Park impeachment. And as always, there is uncertainty in what to expect from North Korea. While the never-ending cycle of provocation followed by de-escalation may seem routine at this point, the past year was particularly eventful as North Korea conducted two nuclear weapons tests, suffered a serious flood, and saw one of the highest-ranking defectors to date flee to South Korea (Choe and Gladstone, 2016). Additionally, Kim Jong Un rang in the new year by announcing that North Korea was close to testing an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) (Munroe and Kim, 2017). This puts them within one final step of assembling a nuclear weapon that can strike the continental US. If there was any “Red Line” for the US regarding North Korea’s nuclear program, this would be it. Yet the US seems to have nothing in its foreign policy tool kit to resolve this problem.

The US finds itself in this position because for the past few decades, the US and its allies failed to put together an effective and consistent policy for dealing with North Korea. As political parties came into and out of power, policies vacillated between hawkish hardline strategies and dovish engagement. Neither has worked. Softer engagement policies, characterized by unreciprocated aid to the North, have served only to enable North Korea, allowing it to funnel more resources toward its military and weapons programs. 

Likewise, hardline policies have also failed, accomplishing little more than antagonizing North Korea and hardening the Kim regime’s resolve. North Korea has essentially called the bluff of the US and its allies, and is defiant in response to any threat. Additionally, sanctions have done little to coerce better behavior from the regime, partially because counties like China refuse to fully enforce the sanctions, but also because the regime is more concerned with its own survival than the wellbeing of its people and can continue to pool what little resources it has toward Pyongyang.

The Kim regime will never give up its military focus and its weapons programs, which it sees as its only deterrent against invasion. Given the inconsistency of US and South Korean policy and the Kim regime’s history of reneging, there is no foundation of trust to advance even the most basic of agreements. North Korea will continue to act as a destabilizing agent in the region until the country either opens up or the current regime falls from power.

This has given way to a US policy of strategic patience, i.e. address short term crises when they arise with no long-term strategy, and hope the underlying problem eventually goes away on its own. But the US strategy cannot be to simply wait and see if North Korea will eventually collapse, as the regime has proven resilient. As North Korea’s most significant ally and trading partner, China has more leverage over the Kim regime than arguable any other country. This leads US policy makers to call for China to do more to manage North Korea’s provocative behavior.[1]   

Yet calls for China to do more are also of little use. Chinese leadership consistently demonstrates that it will respond with condemnation and measured punitive actions when North Korea’s behavior agitates China, but will stop short of actions that risks destabilizing the North Korean regime. China’s recently banning coal imports from North Korea in response to the February 2017 ballistic missile test is in line with this policy (Blanchard and Wen, 2017). The US and its allies can expect China to do what is in China’s best interest, no more, no less.

But North Korea is beginning to change on its own. An emerging unofficial market economy and a populace craving contraband foreign media are changing North Korean society from a grassroots level. The US and its allies should focus, then, on directing their efforts toward encouraging further change in North Korea, with the goal of weakening the regime to either open up the hermit state or precipitate its collapse. They can accomplish this not by engaging the North Korean leadership, but instead by encouraging, funding, and assisting in every way possible the emerging grassroots trends that are already at work changing North Korea from the bottom up. The US and its allies should pursue these efforts in place of aid efforts that work through the North Korean government, which are counterproductive and allow the regime to channel more resources to their military and weapons programs.  By channeling resources to the unofficial networks that are already creating change in North Korea, the US and its allies can aid North Korean people more directly, circumventing the uncooperative and self-interested regime. 

The Pillars of North Korea’s Control

To understand how the North Korean regime’s control is weakening, it is helpful to first examine how the regime has traditionally maintained control over its people. North Korea has for decades employed three pillars of control as the foundation for its dominance over its people. The first pillar is fear. It manifests in the regime’s wielding of power to punish any citizen without need for due process, including high-ranking officials. The severity of this is evident in defectors’ tales of gulag prisons, torture, public executions, and threats to family members meant to keep citizens and officials in line.[2]

Unfortunately, fear of the regime’s authority remains a significant deterrent to any popular liberalization movement to this day. A recent study on the emerging North Korean telecommunications industry concludes that censorship and fear of being monitored stifles political discussion and deters the possibility of an “Arab Spring” style popular uprising facilitated by communication devices(Kim, 2014). But fear works only to the extent that the regime can enforce it. Complete control of people’s lives requires other mechanisms.  

The second pillar of state control over the citizens has traditionally been dependency on the state for livelihood. The state essentially employed all citizens and managed the distribution of income and food. This was manifested most clearly in the Public Distribution System (PDS) which centrally managed the distribution of food to the population. In the eyes of the people, Kim Il Sung and his son were the providers of their livelihoods.

This system completely broke down, however, during the famine in the mid-1990s. Haggard and Noland (2009) conducted the most in-depth study of this event by analyzing the available data available from NGOs, UN and other governmental organizations, North Korean government data, and refugee surveys. They show that the famine was more the result of state mismanagement than natural disaster. To alleviate human suffering, the international community sent large amounts of aid to North Korea, mostly through multilateral organizations such as the World Food Program, but with nearly 25 percent coming bilaterally from South Korea and China (Haggard and Noland, 2009).  Yet even after aid flowed in, much of it did not reach those most in need. Follow-up analysis of defector interviews show that many were not aware that North Korea received foreign aid at all, and an overwhelming majority assume that the leadership diverts large amounts of foreign aid to the military and high-ranking officials (Haggard and Noland 2009, 2011). This event permanently tarnished the image of the Kim regime as the provider in the eyes of the North Korean people.

Yet the most significant development to come from the famine was the rise of marketization from the grassroots level, as it permanently changed the country’s economic and social structure. To survive, people needed to barter and trade for food and other supplies. Since the famine, the unofficial “black market” has continued to grow, possibly equaling the official economy of North Korea by some estimates (Lankov, 2016). Though not yet to the extent of Western democracies, economic upward mobility is now possible.

The Kim regime knew that marketization was a threat to its power yet had no choice but to tolerate it during the worst years of the famine. When the situation stabilized, the regime tried implementing measures beginning in 2002 to curb and co-opt the emerging markets and reestablish the state’s dominant role over people’s livelihoods. Such measures have proven counterproductive in that they were not very effective, further decreased people’s satisfaction with the regime’s capabilities, and increased perceptions of corruption (Haggard and Noland, 2011). This reinforces the idea that people manage their livelihoods better than the regime, despite its attempt to incorporate some market principles into its state-owned enterprise system. North Korea must now tolerate the growing influence of markets as the only effective means for the average citizen to obtain food and other supplies. In short, the emerging grassroots markets have irreparably damaged dependency on the state as a pillar of regime control.

The third pillar of regime control is control of information. North Korea is often referred to as the most isolated nation on earth as the regime controls all media and blocks outside information. The state controls what is broadcast or printed, access to the internet is non-existent for the vast majority of the population, and citizens assume that authorized communication devices are monitored and are careful to avoid criticizing the regime. This has allowed the regime to control the narrative of world events and the history of the peninsula, while any dissenting opinions or inconvenient facts are kept away from the population.

But this pillar, too, has begun to erode. Outside media has increasingly penetrated the regime’s control, thanks to increasingly easy to distribute media technologies and cross-border trade. Popular contraband media and technologies includes foreign DVDs, radios altered to receive foreign broadcast programs, foreign music, and media on USB devices. There have been several recent in-depth studies[3] on increased outside media penetration into North Korea and how it is affecting society. What the data shows is that access to foreign media is changing the opinions of North Korean people, most notably in their increasingly positive perceptions about the outside world. This shows that the Kim regime’s lock on the singular narrative of the outside world has weakened. Since this media penetration into the North is still a relatively new phenomenon, this trend is just the beginning.    

What the North Korean Kim regime relies on, then, is a three-pillar system of population control with two already-weakened pillars. While this is a hopeful trend, the regime has proven remarkably resilient up to this point, surviving the end of the Cold War, famine, and two successions of power. Despite the positive trend, there is no indication that the regime is near collapse or nearing a significant liberalization.

What the US and its Allies Can Do

Several prominent North Korea experts have discussed how these changes can undermine the North Korean regime. Andrei Lankov (2013) argued that what brought about the end of East Germany was that the people were aware that a more prosperous and free West Germany was on the other side of the wall. When the East German government began to loosen its control over its people near the end of the Cold War, it could not hold back the people’s desire to merge with West Germany. He further contests that a similar phenomenon might occur in North Korea if it begins to reform and adopt a more open economy and liberal system of personal freedom. If the regime eases back on its control, the people would become increasingly aware of how much they are being denied, and less fearful of their government. This might cause such a demand for access to the quality of life that their South Korean neighbors enjoy as to create enough internal pressure to bring down the regime and force a unification with South Korea.

Victor Cha (2012) made a similar argument, stating that North Korea needs to open up to survive, but the process of opening up ironically creates the cracks in the foundation that could lead to the demise of the regime. The US and its allies can attempt to accelerate the widening these cracks, i.e., destroying the pillars.

Rather than hoping for the regime’s control to continue to erode, the US should approach these trends as an opportunity to actively undermine the North Korean regime. The US and South Korea, working through both government agencies and NGOs, can deliberately and aggressively facilitate the continued increase in media proliferation in North Korea and the continued expansion of the markets to try to destabilize the Kim regime. The US and South Korea can accomplish this by actively channeling resources and support toward the methods that are already working while encouraging allies to focus efforts there as well.

For example, since outside radio broadcasts are popular near the borders, The US and South Korea should support more and stronger broadcasts that can be received deeper into the country. Proliferation of DVDs, Chinese cellphones, and other easily transportable media can be increased by taking advantage of and channeling items and resources to the existing cross border black market networks. Illegal communication devices, barter-able items, and hard currency are all necessary for the markets to function, and thus proliferating greater information into North Korea is closely tied with enhancing the local markets.

Another important means of attacking the pillars of control is assisting in the resettlement of North Korean refugees. Defectors and refugees risk death and recapture on their long journey to resettlement, usually resettling in South Korea, though some in Europe and the US. Once refugees are resettled, their lack English language ability, lack of job skills, and lack of familiarity with the rest of the developed world can cause difficulties in integrating and flourishing in their new surroundings.  

The US and South Korea should do as much as they can to ensure their safety and well-being and, just as importantly, facilitate their ability to communicate with relatives in North Korea. There are brokers who accomplish this with Chinese cellphones and other means. The US and South Korea can assist with funding for these networks and create additional networks for refuges to communicate with their families by mimicking the existing broker networks. Circulating positive stories of refugees’ post-defection lives is an effective means of countering the regime’s propaganda.

Fortunately, these pillars of control are interrelated and affect each other. Accessing contraband media once required the utmost secrecy, but more recent interviews suggest North Koreans are now more comfortable sharing with family and close friends (Ketchum and Kim, 2012). This trend coincides with officials tacitly allowing access to contraband media and people freely buying and selling contraband devices at the markets. The current marketization requires the bribing of officials to engender laxness in enforcing state laws, undermining the strength of the state’s intimidation of the people. Haggard and Noland (2011) even showed a correlation between access to the market and willingness to make jokes about the ruling regime. This indicates that even the pillar of fear is showing some cracks due to the effects of marketization and media proliferation. If the US focuses its efforts at accelerating media penetration and accelerating the growth of the market, it can accelerate the erosion of fear as a pillar of control as well.


The US and its allies should focus their efforts on the changes that are already occurring in North Korea, assisting to widen the cracks in the pillars of regime control. This can encourage a strengthening feeling that the North Korean people are the masters of their own lives, and facilitate the momentum of change. Faced with enough internal pressure and a shrinking base of power, the regime will eventually have to open up or collapse. A collapsed regime will most likely be messy. An opening up may only be partial, perhaps resembling that of China’s or Vietnam’s. There is uncertainty in what will develop, but regardless, it will be the end of the Kim family’s repressive dominance over the upper half of the peninsula. After that, anything is possible.

What is certain is that tensions and the nuclear crisis will not end while the Kim regime remains in power and the US has no path to resolve this working through the government of North Korea. If the US wants to reach the endgame on this holdover from the Cold War, then together with its allies it needs do what it can to foment change in North Korea from the ground up, not from the top down. The US should deliberately attack the pillars of North Korea’s control over its people. The pillars are already cracked. Those cracks show where to direct the effort.

Peter Murphy is a Master's Candidate in Global Affairs and Policy at Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul. He received his Bachelor's degree in History from the University of Michigan and a Master of International Relations degree from Bond University in Australia. He spent eight years as an active duty officer in the US Army.


BBC. (2017). People will rise against N Korean regime, says defector. BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38741078. Retrieved February 22, 2017

Blanchard, B. and Wen, P. (2017). China wields stick with North Korea, but is still pushing for talks. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-northkorea-analysis-idUSKBN15Z11M. Retrieved February 22, 2017

Cha, V. (2012). The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. HarperCollins, New York: NY.

Chin, J., Fassihi, F. (2016). Obama Calls Chinese President, Urging More Pressure on North Korea. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-split-over-north-korea-casts-pall-on-ties-1454655805. Retrieved February 22, 2017

Choe, S., and Gladstone, R. (2016) North Korea’s No. 2 Diplomat in London Defects to the South. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/18/world/asia/north-korea-defector-thae-yong-ho-britain.html?_r=0. Retrieved February 22, 2017

Haggard, S., and Noland M. (2009). Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform. Columbia University Press, New York: NY.

Haggard, S., and Noland M. (2011). Witness to Transformation Refugee Insights into North Korea. Peterson Institute for International Economics. Washington: DC.

Harden, B., (2012). Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. Viking/Penguin New York: NY.

Kretchun, N., and Kim, J. (2012). A Quiet Opening, North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment. InterMedia.

Kim, Y. (2014). CELL PHONES IN NORTH KOREA: Has North Korea Entered the Telecommunications Revolution?. US-Korea Institute at SAIS

Kyodo News. (2017). In first meeting with Wang, Tillerson calls on China to do more on North Korea. The Japan Times. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/02/18/asia-pacific/politics-diplomacy-asia-pacific/first-meeting-wang-tillerson-calls-china-north-korea/#.WKzMnzt942w. Retrieved February 22, 2017

Lankov, A. (2013). The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia. Oxford University Press, Oxford: UK.

Lankov, A. (2016) The Resurgence of a Market Economy in North Korea. Carnegie Moscow Center. http://carnegie.ru/2016/02/03/resurgence-of-market-economy-in-north-korea-pub-62647. Retrieved February 12, 2016.

Matthews, M. (2002) Bush to Ask China to Pressure North Korea on Nuclear Arms. The Tech Online Edition. 122(50).  http://tech.mit.edu/V122/N50/china-policy-50.50w.html. Retrieved February 22, 2017

 Munroe, T and Kim, J. (2017). North Korea's Kim says close to test launch of ICBM. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-kim-idUSKBN14L0RN. Retrieved February 22, 2017

Park, S. (2016). Social Change in North Korea: Current Trends and Future Prospects. Liberty in North Korea.

Phillips, T. (2014). Escape from North Korea: 'How I escaped horrors of life under Kim Jong-il'. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/11138496/Escape-from-North-Korea-How-I-escaped-horrors-of-life-under-Kim-Jong-il.html?fb. Retrieved February 22, 2017


[1] The past three US administrations have called on China to do more to manage North Korea.

Matthews, M. (2002) Bush to Ask China to Pressure North Korea on Nuclear Arms. The Tech Online Edition. 122(50).  http://tech.mit.edu/V122/N50/china-policy-50.50w.html.

Chin, J., Fassihi, F. (2016). Obama Calls Chinese President, Urging More Pressure on North Korea. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-split-over-north-korea-casts-pall-on-ties-1454655805 Retrieved February 22, 2017

Kyodo News. (2017). In first meeting with Wang, Tillerson calls on China to do more on North Korea. The Japan Times. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/02/18/asia-pacific/politics-diplomacy-asia-pacific/first-meeting-wang-tillerson-calls-china-north-korea/#.WKzMnzt942w . Retrieved February 22, 2017





[2] Several recent biographical accounts of escaped North Korean prisoners have gained worldwide attention and describe torture and execution. Examples include:

Harden, B., (2012). Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. Viking/Penguin New York: NY.

Phillips, T. (2014). Escape from North Korea: 'How I escaped horrors of life under Kim Jong-il'. The Telegraph.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/11138496/Escape-from-North-Korea-How-I-escaped-horrors-of-life-under-Kim-Jong-il.html?fb. Retrieved February 22, 2017

While some recent analysis suggests that refugees exaggerate their experiences, Haggard and Noland’s (2011) work based on interviews of many hundreds of defectors concludes that fear of extrajudicial incarceration, torture, and execution does act as a controlling mechanism for the population.

Additionally, Thae Yong-ho, the high-ranking official who defected in August 2016, confirms the practice of North Korea holding family members accountable as a means to control its officials.

BBC. (2017). People will rise against N Korean regime, says defector. BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38741078. Retrieved February 22, 2017

Haggard, S., and Noland M. (2011). Witness to Transformation Refugee Insights into North Korea. Peterson Institute for International Economics. Washington: DC.


[3]The following studies examine how the recent increase in access to authorized and unauthorized media is changing North Korean people’s opinions:

Kretchun, N., and Kim, J., “A Quiet Opening, North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment.” (InterMedia, 2012)

Kim, Y., “CELL PHONES IN NORTH KOREA: Has North Korea Entered the Telecommunications Revolution?.” (US-Korea Institute at SAIS, 2014)

Park, S., “Social Change in North Korea: Current Trends and Future Prospects.” (Liberty in North Korea, 2016)

Haggard, S., and Noland M., “Witness to Transformation Refugee Insights into North Korea.” (Peterson Institute for International Economics, Washington: DC, 2011)

Comments in Chronological order (2 total comments)

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Sat, March 11, 2017 05:34 PM (about 21376 hours ago)
Unquestionably consider that that you said. Your favorite justification seemed to be at the net the simplest thing to bear in mind of. I say to you, I
Wed, March 29, 2017 06:54 AM (about 20955 hours ago)
We need to know more on 'how' US and others can encourage these changes in North Korea and how can these occur while China and Russia still prop up th
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