The short version is easily told. North Korea is one of the world’s most closed societies, a tightly run police state wedded to a rigid totalitarian ideology. Obedience is enforced by an all-encompassing system of surveillance and control; the merest deviation can land not only the guilty individual but his entire family in a concentration camp. The militarization of life is broad and deep: a population of 23 million supports a 1.2 million–man army, one of the world’s largest, and uniforms are common even for non-military professions. Kim Jong Il, the nation’s ruler, is the object of a surreal personality cult. The message of unquestioning fealty to him is hammered into the population day and night through an array of state media. Radios in the country are manufactured so that they can receive only government-approved stations—just one more way the regime strives to ensure that its subjects know only what it wants them to.

All this has been true for decades, and could well remain true for the foreseeable future. And yet this picture of life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) leaves out a great deal—and just possibly the most important parts of all. Consider, for the sake of argument, the travails of the eponymous North Korean heroine in Jia, the remarkable novel of Hyejin Kim—a South Korean who spent several years working with humanitarian aid organizations in the Chinese provinces bordering the DPRK. Jia, whose parents were sent off to the camps for some minor transgression, grows up in a Pyongyang orphanage to become a folk dancer, a relatively privileged position that allows her to find a measure of peace with the system. But then she falls victim to an unhappy romance. The boy she loves reveals a depth of fanatical belief in the regime that ultimately destroys their relationship, since she’s afraid to reveal to him her own “tainted” background. It’s a situation that would seem to be emblematic for a society in which every individual has secrets that have to be concealed.

And then comes the news of the death of the country’s founding leader and reigning demigod, Kim Il Sung. (The date isn’t mentioned in the book, but we know that he died in 1994.) His demise is a harbinger of disaster. Floods wash over the countryside. Gross state mismanagement compounds the catastrophe, and soon famine is sweeping the land. As the state-run food distribution system collapses, people realize that the only way to survive is to rely on their own ability to buy and sell things that others want:

On TV and radio, the government told us the nation had recovered from the natural disasters, but the situation only seemed to be worsening. The appearance of the city had changed completely; instead of going to work, people wandered all day. The streets teemed with people carrying big bags on their shoulders, as they went into alleys to sell their belongings. The police couldn’t control the black market. Never had street markets been so popular, nor the goods so various. Groups of people sitting on the sidewalks displaying their belongings had become fixtures in the residential areas. Houses were emptied, and the sellers far outnumbered the buyers.

In short, though you can still get in trouble for uttering a thoughtless word, the economy has slipped out from under the control of the planners. Jia runs into one of her former schoolteachers who has taken to selling food from a makeshift stall in order to earn enough money to stay alive—though not soon enough to save her husband and daughter, who have both died from hunger. It could be worse, though. Jia also hears talk of the public execution of people who have been accused of cannibalism.

Society is breaking down. Street urchins who have lost their families to the mass starvation (and who go by the deceptively poetic name of kkotjebi, or “flower swallows”) will do almost anything to get by. The police, as Jia notes, can’t control the black market, nor do they want to: it’s much easier to shake down its participants for bribes that will enable the policemen to keep their own families fed. Corruption, indeed, has worked its way deep into the system. Fifty American dollars can buy you virtually any document. To be sure, the zealots—like Jia’s misguided boyfriend—blame what they see as the ingratitude of “national traitors” for the ills that have befallen the country, and they are on the prowl, eager to root out enemies real and imagined. But most people—even those who once bought into the official creed— simply succumb to apathy.

One of the reasons for their cynicism is the gradual realization that the laws of existence that apply to Kim Jong Il’s kingdom do not necessarily hold true elsewhere. As the economic situation deteriorates, ordinary people increasingly brave the risk of crossing over into North Korea’s huge neighbor and historical ally, China. The frontier between the two countries is thinly guarded and it is an easy matter to slip across. Even though those who do so without authorization may face punishment if they’re caught, the temptations are simply too great. For those who have managed to see China up close, the result is no less than a profound epistemological shock. A friend of Jia’s who looks across the frontier from the North Korean “ghost town” of Sinu?iju sees “the high buildings and splendid lights” on the far side of the border and wonders: “How would the Chinese have money for all that light unless they were well fed? The loving son couldn’t stand letting his parents grow sicker from starvation.”


Even though the risks are huge, Jia finally decides to make the journey herself. But first she has to get to the border—no easy task in a country where public infrastructure is falling apart after decades of underinvestment. Trains are so rare that you can end up waiting in the station for days until one comes. But finally it’s time to go:

When the train finally arrived, it was as if war broke out. The distant whistle sounded and people jumped up and grabbed their bags, screaming and shouting; suddenly the whole place was alive with noise. The railroad police made us stand in one line, and a policeman made an announcement about civic morality. People who didn’t follow the rules would be punished severely. Nobody listened.

As the policeman was finishing his announcement, a dozen men rushed the platform and scaled the gate. Hundreds of people pushed madly after them, and the railroad police were overwhelmed. Some thieves made the most of the opportunity, cutting the bottom of one unsuspecting man’s bag with a knife and catching the corn that ran out in their own bag. A flock of kkotjebi rushed to get their share. Finally the man realized what was going on and bawled, “Damn these hoodlums,” kicking the kkotjebi. They didn’t budge until they had collected all the corn.

Railroad inspectors tried to check each passenger’s ticket and travel permit, but it was useless. They beat anyone they found without proper documents, but the crowd pushed past them. They shouted, “You can’t get on the train without a ticket and a card. We’ll inspect you sons of bitches again on the train.”

People dashed for it anyway, some dropping off the train like falling leaves. Those who didn’t have tickets or permits climbed up on the roof. The inspectors didn’t care about them, saying they would all die of cold or electric shock.

Aside from the brutal equanimity of those inspectors, what’s most intriguing about this passage is its portrayal of a populace just doing what comes naturally. “Nobody listened”—an intriguing commentary on the internal strength of the Pyongyang regime. In the end, despite all the obstacles, Jia does make it to China. There she endures a series of typical trials encountered by so many North Korean refugees who enter the country brutalized, desperate, and often victimized by unscrupulous traffickers. Luckily that fate evades Hyejin Kim’s heroine, who finally manages to find unlikely redemption in an ending that carries just a hint of melodramatic release. Jia, after all, is a beautiful (and somewhat beatific) young woman who ultimately makes good.

Jia is perhaps not a great work of literature, but that may be beside the point. Hyejin Kim charts the minutiae of everyday change in a country usually regarded by foreign onlookers as mysteriously immune to the politics and pressures of the outside world— “eternally static North Korea,” in the memorable phrase of one reviewer.1 This story of the North’s quiet yet potentially momentous transformation is clearly worth hearing. Yet there are few out there who seem capable of telling it.


The North Korean authorities refer to the great famine of the second half of the 1990s as the “Arduous March”— as if it were a salutary test of the nation’s moral fiber rather than a policy failure of genocidal proportions.2 As so vividly depicted in Jia, the collapse of the state economy spurred a surge of grassroots entrepreneurship that has left Pyongyang’s central planners scrambling to keep up. In July 2002 Kim Jong Il’s government announced a series of measures that lifted controls on key prices and legalized private markets. Those moves are sometimes described as “economic reforms,” though on closer inspection they look more like a reluctant acknowledgment of an inescapable reality than a Chinese-style strategic plan for change.


This contrast seems especially ironic considering that the same period has been marked by an unprecedented opening to China. The slow-motion disintegration of the North’s economy over the past decade has been mirrored by China’s astonishing growth, and the not entirely surprising result has been a steady flow of North Koreans across the border—with some merely seeking temporary work, others long-term refuge, and still others attempting to use their sojourn in China as a stepping-stone for defection to South Korea.

And yet, according to the scholar Andrei Lankov in North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea, a few years ago the Pyongyang government began issuing special permits for North Koreans wishing to do business in China—evidence that Kim Jong Il’s regime views China, to a certain extent, as an economic lifeline (despite the harsh penalties still meted out to anyone suspected of attempting or abetting defection). He also points out that the once-all-encompassing system of permits for travel within North Korea (a feature of many Communist countries) has been essentially allowed to lapse since 1997.

It is no accident that we are obliged to Lankov for this insight. A Russian historian associated with the Australian National University and South Korea’s Kookmin University, Lankov is one of the most illuminating North Korea watchers around. His fluency in Chinese and Korean, coupled with his personal experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union and his intricate knowledge of East Asian diplomatic history, makes his reflections on North Korean life uniquely perceptive. As a Russian, a citizen of a country viewed favorably by Pyongyang, he was able to travel relatively freely to the North for years, and he supplemented observations from his trips with data gleaned from written sources, visits to the accessible border areas in China, and interviews with defectors now living in South Korea. Far from being frozen in time, Lankov convincingly argues, North Korean society is actually turbulent and protean. He’s especially good on the details of everyday life, from crime (rampant) to extramarital sex (ditto, if more covert).

As Lankov points out, one of the major effects of the booming trade with China has been a sharp rise in North Koreans’ knowledge of the outside world—and especially of South Korea, given that movies and pop music from the South are freely available just over the Chinese side of the border. A few years ago Chinese consumers began selling off their outmoded video cassette recorders to North Korean traders at junkyard prices. Since then flying police squads searching for illicit tapes have become an everyday feature of North Korean life. “Indeed,” concludes Lankov,

North Korea is in the middle of a video revolution which is likely to have a deep impact on its future. The information blockade, which has been maintained for decades, is crumbling under the pressure of new technologies and increasing inefficiency in the old economy.

Lankov is not the only recent observer to have found a way around the formidable obstacles that the North Korean system places in the way of informed analysis. In 2005, the then Seoul correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, Barbara Demick, published a remarkable portrait of the North Korean seaport city of Chongjin, based on dozens of interviews with recent defectors. It remains one of the most definitive accounts to date of the culture of grassroots capitalism that has taken hold in the country since the famine.3 Here, too, the collapse of the central planning system in the second half of the 1990s also prompted ordinary people to keep themselves afloat by buying and selling goods and services on their own initiative—everything from haircuts to Bibles and bicycle repair. “Markets are springing up in the shadows of abandoned factories, foreign influences are breaching the borders, inflation is soaring and corruption is rampant,” Demick concluded. “A small nouveau riche class has emerged, even as a far larger group has been forced to trade away everything for food.”

It’s a remarkable story, and one would think that there would be many more academics and journalists striving to puzzle it out. In fact, though, Demick and Lankov are exceptions— members of a tiny minority of experts who are willing to rise to the challenge of teasing out the real texture of life in the not-so-hermetic Hermit Kingdom. There are many reasons for reluctance to tackle the topic—some entirely understandable, others less so. North Korea, after all, remains a police state, making it extremely hard to verify information from within. Many journalists whose beats include the North will freely confess how the job keeps them awake at night, since it all too often seems to involve recycling speculation from a variety of experts of widely varying qualifications. If by some stroke of luck your application for a visa actually gets approved, upon arrival in the North you will find your every move scrutinized and restricted by multiple government minders (whose job, Lankov notes, includes spying on each other).

And even if you manage to eke out your barren report with a few moments of contact with “ordinary” North Koreans (who probably aren’t ordinary if they’re allowed to have contact with foreigners), fleeting interviews with the odd museum guide or flower-seller are unlikely to yield much more than cautious platitudes about the people’s unquenchable love for the Dear Leader. As for defectors, the skeptics argue that they are inherently unreliable—members of a “self-selecting” group whose obvious disaffection from the regime automatically implies disqualifying bias.

Though this seems logical enough on the face of things, it ignores the fact that cold war–era defectors from the Eastern Bloc, whose testimony was frequently discounted on similar grounds by Western scholars and journalistic experts, proved in retrospect to have provided a far more accurate cumulative picture than the “scientific” analyses of the professional intelligence analysts. Still, given all the constraints, it is hard to blame academia and the media for being somewhat risk-averse when it comes to publishing accounts of life within the country that appear to diverge starkly from conventional wisdom.

Of course, there is another factor that complicates reporting on the North, and that is the nuclear issue. Just as with the old USSR, the ultimate motive for most of the current interest in North Korea is, put simply, fear. In October 2006 the DPRK successfully tested a small nuclear device, thus ending decades of speculation about Pyongyang’s capabilities. Just to make matters worse, the North Koreans have repeatedly tested ballistic missiles that could serve as delivery vehicles for nuclear warheads one day. The regime has a track record of half-cocked belligerence, including Kim Il Sung’s catastrophic invasion of the South that triggered the Korean War in 1950, a commando assault on South Korea’s seat of government in 1968, and a terrorist attack that nearly wiped out the South Korean cabinet in 1983. Given the combination of the North’s technological know-how and institutionalized paranoia, a certain degree of fixation on the dangers represented by Kim’s regime is entirely understandable.

Lately there seem to be at least some grounds for optimism. At the end of June the North Korean government submitted a long-delayed inventory of its nuclear equipment and materials that appears to have given new life to the Six-Party talks, the negotiating process aimed at ridding the North of its nuclear weapons program. At about the same time, in a shrewd public relations flourish, the North Koreans invited Western TV crews to film the demolition of a cooling tower at its nuclear complex in Yongbyon.

If the North’s declaration is deemed satisfactory by the other countries involved in the talks, it could ultimately open the path to a broad program of assistance and even diplomatic recognition by the United States. If not, the DPRK’s pariah status is likely to continue indefinitely. Since, however, it is still quite a way to the end of the Six-Party process, and because the contents of the North’s declaration have not been made public, it is still far too early to make reliable judgments about the extent of Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize.

And yet, just as in the cold war, this single-minded focus on weapons can also end up obscuring a great deal of other things worth knowing. One way to defuse a nation-sized threat, of course, is by amassing as much information as possible about the society and the government that are behind it—their motives, instincts, and habits of thought. In the case of North Korea, we are confronted by the paradox that some of the experts who happily pontificate on the inner workings and strategic intentions of Kim’s government (precisely the part of the North Korean puzzle that, I would argue, is still the hardest to crack) would probably be incapable of using a Pyongyang telephone book.


So do the changes buffeting North Korean society mean that we are on the threshold of a grand period of liberalization? The answer, sadly, is not that straightforward. Unlike Mikhail Gorbachev or Deng Xiaoping, Kim Jong Il has never given explicit priority to finding pragmatic solutions to his nation’s problems.4 If anything, the trend over the past few years has been to step up the battle against “bourgeois” tendencies resulting from the country’s hesitant opening. A series of recent directives strive to limit the numbers of people allowed access to private markets,5 and crackdowns on foreign videos and literature have intensified.

Kim faces a much sharper version of the paradox that once confronted Erich Honecker in East Berlin: modernization requires opening but opening means vulnerability to the capitalist twin next door—in Kim’s case, of course, South Korea, now the world’s thirteenth-largest economy. (In 1990, West Germany’s economy was about ten times the size of the East’s; today South Korea’s economy is estimated to be around fifty times larger than the North’s.) Though Seoul and Pyongyang have conducted a remarkable rapprochement over the past decade, Kim has been careful to ensure that the North receives the South’s aid and investment without giving much in return. It’s a delicate balancing act that, as far as the North is concerned, requires continuous calibration.

In his foreword to Escaping North Korea, Mike Kim’s fascinating account of his efforts to smuggle North Korean defectors to freedom in the South, Mark Palmer draws an optimistic comparison between the North Koreans crossing the border to China and the East Germans who flooded into Hungary in those heady months in 1989 before the sundering of the Berlin Wall. Palmer, who served as US ambassador to Budapest at the time, writes: “The parallels with North Korea are striking.” It would be nice if this were true. Unfortunately early-twenty-first-century China is a much harsher place than late-1980s Hungary, as demonstrated by the countless numbers of North Koreans who have been summarily deported by the Chinese authorities to certain punishment back home.

Then there is also the point that many of the North Koreans crossing into China’s border provinces (largely populated, it should be noted, by ethnic Koreans) are doing so for economic rather than political reasons; many of them seem happy to stay in China if they can get permission to do so and if they can find work; and some are willing to return to the North. Of the tens of thousands of North Koreans estimated to be in the frontier area at any given time, however, only a relatively small number are prepared to brave the exhausting and potentially lethal trial of defection. Kim Jong Il and his friends in Beijing, who are just as aware of the East German precedent as Palmer is, are doing everything in their power to keep it that way.

And yet there is no denying that something fundamental has changed. In the spring of 2007, for example, the North Korean government informed all citizens employed in its diplomatic offices abroad that all children (excepting one from each family) would have to be sent home to the motherland. When the deadline came around, however, most of the families affected by the ruling simply ignored it—an apparently unprecedented display of disobedience. Since then most have slowly complied, though not before obtaining various concessions (perhaps with the help of the occasional well-placed bribe).

The spread of corruption, indeed, cannot help but undermine the police state’s hold in a myriad of ways, both large and small. The defectors interviewed by Demick told of having their Chinese cell phones and radios taken away from them by police: “In the past, being caught with such contraband would land a person in political prison. Nowadays, security personnel will more likely confiscate the illicit item for personal use.”

The regime’s ideology has largely exhausted itself. Just a few years ago it was still possible to read interviews with defectors who attested to the continued hold of official propaganda over North Korean public opinion. Judging by Demick’s interviewees, though, the information monopoly has been irreparably broken:

“People are not stupid. Everybody thinks our own government is to blame for our terrible situation,” said a 39-year-old coal miner from Chongjin who was interviewed late last year during a visit to China. “We all know we think that, and we all know everybody else thinks that. We don’t need to talk about it.”

Kim Sun Bok, a 32-year-old former factory worker who came to South Korea last summer, said the country was “changing incredibly.”

“It is not the same old North Korea except in name.”

Lankov, for his part, ventures the conclusion that the old Stalinist system in North Korea has already been consigned to the grave, and is now being supplanted by something fundamentally different. But this evolution is clearly fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity. Small freedoms grudgingly granted alternate with draconian sanctions unexpectedly imposed; one step forward, two steps back—or perhaps even sideways.

This is not, in short, the sort of environment where newspaper editors, department chairmen, or presidential briefers will feel comfortable. Yet it is precisely the territory most congenial to the novelist6 —which is why, perhaps, the novelists are doing so much to round out the picture. James Church is the pseudonym of a former US intelligence analyst who spent decades studying the North Korean regime before realizing that he could only capture his broader insights into the society by turning to fiction—in his case, A Corpse in the Koryo and Hidden Moon, two stylish but finely realized mystery novels centered on a North Korean policeman endowed with the cipher-like name of Inspector Oh. Church explained his rationale in an interview with The Washington Post: “In the academic or intelligence world, an analyst who wrote about North Korea without the standard ‘moral bubble’ immediately would be accused of being blind to the ‘awfulness of the place,’ Church said. ‘You don’t have to do that in a mystery story.'”7

Inspector Oh’s world, it should be said, is a place where the mysteries are best left unresolved even once the culprits are established. Villains usually go free. The numerous intelligence services are at their most lethal when fighting each other—over the spoils from a crooked business deal with the South, for example. Foreign investors are starting to arrive (though almost never with the results expected by them or their hosts). Official ideology is a dangerous nuisance, nothing more —even while Oh clings to a stubborn, private patriotism of his own that yields lovely insights into the distinctly Korean mix of xenophobia and inferiority complex:

It’s not that we don’t like foreigners. It’s not foreigners, it’s ourselves we don’t like. In our minds, we are small, quivering, bowing, submissive, beaten, cowering dogs. If we like foreigners, it can only be because we are afraid, or currying favor, or kissing their feet.

And—shades of Hyejin Kim—here are those impotent railway officials again:

The train lurched again and shuddered to a stop. From outside the car came shouts. Two railway police had a small boy by the collar, though because of the long shadows and the dirt on the windows, it was hard to tell how old he was. They dragged him to an embankment and gave him a shove…. “And don’t let me catch you again, or I’ll shoot.” He turned to his companion. “Or I would if had any ammunition.”

It is probably too early to call this an epitaph for the Kim regime. But if there is one thing that these glimpses of “eternally static” North Korea demonstrate, it is that nothing human is static forever.

—July 16, 2008