North Korea’s Internal War Against South Korean Culture and Market Ideas May Be Unwinnable

A north Korean student is seen using a computer. Image via Naenara

As the generation of North Koreans who grew up familiar with the jangmadang market system enters adulthood, the state is cracking down harshly to prevent their “impure” attitudes and tastes – which include a preference for South Korean music and movies – from going mainstream. 

The regime sees the battle as “critical,” but it may ultimately prove to be one it cannot win.

There is no question that Kim Jong Un is afraid of foreign, and particularly South Korean, culture. 

In its “2023 Report on North Korean Human Rights,” South Korea’s Ministry of Unification released testimonies from North Korean defectors about six teenagers executed after a public trial in Wonsan for watching South Korean videos. 

The fact the sentence in this case was more severe than for murder, rape, robbery, rape and drug trafficking, gives an idea of how seriously the state views the threat.

It is also clearly widespread. According to an educational document obtained by NK Insider, over 9,000 students from an elite middle school in one provincial city last year confessed to having watched illegal videos and turned themselves in to security authorities. More than 3,000 of them handed over flash drives containing illegal videos.

“Hostile acts of antisocialism and non-socialism, which in the past were only practiced by some naive residents, sectors, and units in society, have now penetrated deeply into the overall social life,” the document said. Entitled “On rising up to struggle to suppress and eliminate anti-socialist and non-socialist behaviors,” the document is being used to train party officials, government officials, workers, soldiers and students.

The spread of foreign culture is “weakening our internal power and becoming the main obstacle to our march (and) has now reached the point of being unacceptable,” it claimed, adding, “It is not an exaggeration to say that we are at the crossroads of whether we can adhere to the socialist system.”

To drive the message home, the regime is publicizing its terror tactics. An “Educational Guidance Video” recently obtained by the Seoul-based South and North Development (SAND) Institute, shows the public trial of two 16-year-olds being sentenced to a labor camp for having watched South Korean movies and K-pop. The video shows them being taken away in shackles to start their 12-year sentences.

Fear of the outside world is, of course, not new for North Korea’s regime. To maintain power centered around a supreme leader, a dictatorship needs two types of emotional bond with the people. The first is the deification of the leader. The second is hostility toward the enemy that serves to promote the superiority of the leader’s rule. For this purpose, North Koreans are subjected to an extensive and systematic mindset education program from an early age.

The reason it fears cultural content from the U.S. and South Korea is because it undermines these bonds. 

The content that is now spreading through North Korea is making a remarkable difference. 

From contact with recent defectors and from our sources within North Korea, we understand that North Koreans who have glimpsed the political system and social conditions portrayed in the videos find themselves conflicted. They may feel betrayal and distrust toward the regime. They may feel envy and longing for the lives people in affluent democratic societies seem to enjoy, with their guaranteed freedoms and human rights. In this way, feelings of relative deprivation turn to hatred.

Such sentiments spreading through North Korea originate with the jangmadang markets. These markets coexist with the state-run socialist economy.

In time, the markets have formed an economic community that is distinct from the country’s political and administrative organizations. This community is driven not by organizational regulations and codes of conduct, but by the principle of supply and demand, where competing interests meet. 

The traders who organized and operated the first market communities are now middle-aged or even old. Children born during that time are now young adults. This jangmadang generation which never experienced rationing and knows market-oriented values is emerging as the mainstream. They put more focus on self-centered interests than on dedication and service to the leader and the system.

As the regime tries to kill their way of thinking without losing the benefit of the markets, it will find itself limited. This is because the jangmadang generation cannot be forced or brainwashed with any appeal to a spirit of sacrifice. They already know and admire free societies through the South Korean content they have been exposed to. They prefer and pursue free market-oriented capitalism over socialism.

As their influence grows, we should expect to see anti-authoritarian and anti-state struggles and calls for the system to improve and the society to change.

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