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World

Everyday Life In North Korea

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The few pictures we see of North Korea are meant to impress and possibly frighten the outside world - thousands of soldiers marching in lockstep, looming portraits of a venerated leader, the leader himself applauding from a reviewing stand, as crowds shed tears of worship. In recent weeks, there's been shots of people said to be scientists in their lab and a bulbous bomb. But what's everyday life like away from official cameras, for most North Koreans who struggle just to get by?

Sokeel Park is director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea, a group that works with refugees from the North. He joins us now on the line from Seoul, South Korea. Thanks very much for being with us, Sokeel.

SOKEEL PARK: Thanks for having me on.

SIMON: What are some of the things that you believe on the outside we get wrong about the people of North Korea? Are they as cut off from the world as we think?

PARK: I think from the outside, and especially these days with so much focus on Kim Jong Un and nuclear weapons and missile launches and these kind of things, North Korea is often just seen as a security problem, as a potentially kind of crazy or irrational dictator with missiles. And often, we miss out on the story of 24 million ordinary people, just like you and I, who are living their lives in that country. And the country is changing on the inside. I think that we often miss that.

SIMON: How so?

PARK: Well, I think that the most important thing is kind of a rise of a grassroots capitalism inside the country. So basically, this has been happening since the famine of the 1990s, when the North Korean government basically lost control of the economy. They were no longer able to function with a state socialist economy, provide rations to the people and so on. And so people had to take their livelihoods into their own hands. And they started to engage in basically survival entrepreneurialism. They started to smuggle goods back and forth with China. And from there, we've seen the rise of capitalism, basically a market economy. It's a closed and constrained market economy, but it's capitalism nonetheless.

And also, albeit, you know, from a very low baseline, there is more foreign information and foreign media seeping into the country. More North Koreans have access to things like mobile phones, DVD players, computers. And they're increasingly watching South Korean movies, soap operas, even, you know, Hollywood movies secretly and with considerable risk inside the country. And so the economy is changing. The information environment is changing. And we see society change along with that.

SIMON: And change in what way? And does this alert and alarm the North Korean regime?

PARK: Yes. You know, one of the things that we pay quite a lot of attention to, as our organization is working with North Korean refugees, people who are escaping the country. And a lot of these people are young. A lot of them are in their 20s and 30s. And they represent this kind of new, you know, we could even say North Korean millennial generation. And they are more kind of independent from the regime. And they've been less indoctrinated by the North Korean government's ideologies than previous generations. And this does seem to be something that, especially in that Kim Jong Un era, North Korean government is sensitive to and is trying to implement policies to remedy it but with probably limited success overall.

SIMON: I believe you've produced a film called "The Jangmadang Generation" about some young people in North Korea, some refugees. If they begin to get too active, too outspoken, is this just, in a sense, an opportunity for the government to crush them?

PARK: Yeah, it is - you know, that is still the reality inside the country. There's no civil society. There's no organized opposition. You know, probably, this is something that's just fundamentally different to any other country in the world. There are no known dissidents inside North Korea. However, there is kind of an everyday disorganized resistance, whether it be doing illegal economic activities or, you know, sharing illegal foreign media, South Korean movies and so on, with your friends and then having some subversive conversations with them.

And so that's the level that we're on right now, really, in North Korea. We don't have a civil society. We don't have organized opposition. But some of the seeds for space outside of government control, some of those are starting to form. This is actually where I think a lot of the change and hope is on North Korea today.

SIMON: Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea in Seoul, South Korea. Thanks so much for being with us.

PARK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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