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Mon Feb 11, 2013, 08:41 AM

North Korea: Rumblings from below

WITH her turquoise top, Dayglo trainers and Hello Kitty mobile phone, Jeon Geum Ju fits right in among the young latte-sippers in a Starbucks in downtown Seoul. Her dark eyes sparkle as she talks—and she talks a lot. The only time that the 26-year-old hesitates, and tugs at her hair awkwardly, is when she is asked about Kim Jong Un, the young leader of North Korea who took over her country in 2011, a year after she fled to South Korea. She was, she says, so brainwashed from a very early age that she still cannot bring herself to criticize him.


Until recently, the outside world has known little about North Korean society. But during the past decade information has flowed—albeit illegally—both into and out of North Korea (see chart 1). Last year an American government-backed report by InterMedia, a consultancy, welcomed the deluge pouring into the North through digital media and old-style broadcasting such as Voice of America and the Korean Broadcasting System. “North Koreans can get more outside information…than ever before,” it said, “and they are less fearful of sharing that information.”

This has had two effects. First, people inside North Korea with access to outside influences can now compare their impoverished lives with others’ elsewhere. That has helped trigger a craving for the material trappings of the modern world, and the flow of such contraband goods from China to the North Korean border, orchestrated or waved on by corrupt officials. It has, says Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea at Kookmin University in Seoul, become a society where money now talks even more loudly than your relationship to the regime. “It’s a completely different society than it was 15 years ago. This has not happened because of government policy. It’s a change from below.”

Second, new information flows have given outsiders an insight into the changes taking place in North Korean society. This year, for the first time, Google and some dedicated North Korea-watchers have mapped the interior of the country, locating everything from underground railway stations to labour camps. That information will not be available to North Koreans, almost all of whom are barred from using the internet. But for outsiders it helps unravel the all-enwrapping shroud of secrecy.


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