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Does the Birth of the Jangmadang Generation Foreshadow the End of the North Korean Regime?

Recently, most North Korean human rights organizations have paid a great deal of attention to North Korean young people commonly known as the “Jangmadang generation”[i] born in the late 1980s, just before the collapse of North Korean planned economy system. Several North Korean activists argue that ‘Jangmadang generation’ has grown up in a society with relatively free access to foreign information and to South Korean multimedia, thus they might be a force to shake the North Korean regime[ii]. Certainly, the black markets in North Korea have been evolving and young people in their twenties and thirties were less brain-washed by the government compared to their parents.

However, does the evolution of the market really mean the regression of the state? In other words, how has the North Korean government respond to the marketization? Moreover, do the experiences of watching South Korean media ( drama, music, radio programs) mean resistance to the existing authority?

The evolution of the market, the expansion of the governmentality

Historically, the North Korean government was known as Stalinist regime, but the markets in North Korea emerged because of the collapse of central food distribution system in early 1990s. The North Korean government and Markets have been interacting continuously over last two decades. According to Kwak In-ok’s research, the central market in Heoryong, North Ham-gyeong province, has been relocated and expanded by the government[iii]..

< A satellite image shows how Chaeha-dong Market in Sinuiju, North Korean, has moved and expanded>[iv]

The central government officially recognized the ‘private markets’ as legal markets[v] since 2002 and 2003. As a result, the “General markets” have been established since 2003[vi] and there were hundreds of private commercial stores opened in the markets. The size of markets has been growing[vii]. The level of dependence on markets has been increasing as well[viii]. However, the quantitative growth in markets may not indicate the regression of the state’s control. On one hand, the North Korean government tried to incinerate the markets by amending the laws; on the other hand, the governmental surveillance system has been deeply perpetuated to ordinate people’s daily lives

< North Korean females standing at their stalls to sell commodities>[ix]

I interviewed three female North Koreans this past May (2016). They are all in their twenties and they had run their own private businesses in North Korea. During the interviews, they described how they encountered the state’s governmentality in their daily lives. They grew up with marketization and they heavily relied on commercial activities in the markets; however, they could not escape from the surveillance of the state.

“My family had been doing business with Korean-Chinese people for 5 years. We ‘exported’ North Korean gold to China. Of course, it was illegal and risky business. So, we had to bribe local authorities. If there were ‘new policies’ from the central government in Pyeong-yang, the local authorities would come to inform us secretly. We made a huge amount of money, but we had to give about 40% of the profits to the local authority. Although we had powerful connections with the officials, our position was always under the authoritative control. For instance, my father was forced to report every single thing about the business to the officials even when they were drinking. The local officials knew our secrets too much.” (Hye-jin, 27 years old )

Hye-jin’s family had shared their business profits with the local authorities. This was the reason they could do business with China safely. On one hand, the local officials protected her family from the surveillance of the central government by conniving at the smuggling. On the other hand, the local authority had been monitoring her family by asking and collecting information on their business. This kind of contradict relationship resulted in strengthening the political control of the local authority, rather than decreasing in state power. Thus, Hye-jin as one of the new generation had been experiencing state intervention through her entire life.

“When the officials confiscated all our property, I finally realized that I could that fight against with the authority. My parents’ generation experienced the food distribution, but my generation did not. The government provided us nothing but the control and regulation. Certainly I have no loyalty to the state / nation, but I have been taught that the state had the supremacy of the political power.. I am afraid of the state.” (Hye-jin)

We like South Korean culture, less interest in ideology

But we are familiar with the surveillance of state

< A DVD player called Notetell, which made in China and popular in North Korea >[x]

Jung-Ah and Ji-hyun had watched South Korean dramas and movies since they were in high school. They admitted that South Korean media had affected the way they saw the North Korean society, but most of time they just enjoyed the cultural things, such as cosmetics and fashion.

“My friends and I talked about the stories in dramas and compared it with our lives. We knew how much money South Korean people make every month. We would say “why we could not have that kind of wealthy lives”. But this was more like an emotional enviousness, rather than political reaction.” (Interviewee Jung-Ah, 25 years old)

“Yes, watching the CDs meant deviation from the state regulations, but this did not mean we hated the state. We were taught and informed that watching South Korean media was anti-socialist. So, I felt guilty while I was watching the videos. The state dominated my thoughts and mind because I had to follow all the regulations.” (Interviewee Ji-Hyun, 23 years old)

Apparently, the new generation has the courage to break the state laws by watching South Korean dramas and imitating South Korean fashion style. At the same time, however, they understood well that they were doing wrong and illegal thing according to the North Korean Laws. Thus, when the local authority punish or fine them, they would accept the punishment without complains or resistances.

When I asked “what did the state mean to you?”, Ji-Hyun responded that “I would like to separate the central government from local government because for me the central government in Pyeong-yang was doing good things for us. I thought only the local government tried to control our lives in order to take away money from us. So I blamed on the local authority, not the state.” Hye-Jin also mentioned that “Most of my friends, including me, were less interested in ideology than our parents. So I did not think about the state much in my daily life. But I was very aware of the regulations.”

Sunny Yoon points out that young North Korean people are creating their own sub-culture by watching South Korean visual media[xi]. But this cannot directly lead to the resistance to the existing system. They watch videos just for exploring new culture. Thus, South Korean media could not change or replace the dominant discourses in North Korean society[xii] yet. In the same vein, my interviewees enjoyed South Korean media, but simultaneously they were fully aware of the presence of the state. They showed ignorance of politics, but they could frequently ‘sense’ the governmentality in their everyday life.

But how have South Korean videos been so widespread in North Korea? The number of young people watching South Korean videos is still vague. According to a survey conducted by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies of Seoul National University in 2015, 57.5% of respondents have experienced South Korean culture ‘often’, but there are still 30.8% of respondents have only experienced them ‘once or twice’. These statistics can indicate that the number of viewers in the population has been increasing; however, it is still not clear how far this phenomenon is reaching since over 80% of North Korea defectors are from the two major border areas, North Hyam-gyeong (함경북도) and Yanggang provinces (양강도). Therefore, it is too early to conclude that South Korean media will contribute to a great shift among young North Koreans.

< Figure 1: The experience in Korean Wave 2008-2015 > [xiii]

<Figure 2 : Final residence in North Korea>[xiv]

Concluding remarks

This article tried to make two main arguments to challenge the common assumption that “Jangmadang Generation” will become a force to resist the North Korean regime. Apparently, marketization in North Korea has been intensified and young North Koreans have been more interested in capitalism than Juche ideology. However, these changes do not indicate sings of the collapse of North Korean regime. As this article explored, North Korean government has been involved in generating and changing the market-lead economy. Most importantly, North Korean authority has not diminished as most mass media reports. Rather, they deeply penetrate into the ordinary people’s lives by (de)regulating certain forms of restrictions. Thus, this article suggests that we need to pay a special attention to how the North Korean state responds to young North Koreans as the market economy grows.

***The views herein do not necessarily represent the views of North Korean Review, YINKS, or Yonsei University.

[i] Liberty in North Korea. ; NK 지식인연대, 김흥광 대표, “한류(韓流) 콘텐츠로 북한 융단폭격”, Feb 24th, 2016, Future Korea.

[ii] Yeon-mi Park : The hopes of North Korea’s ‘Black market Generation’ , May 25, 2014, The Washington Post.

[iii] Kwak In – ok (2013), Spatial structure and function of Heoryong market. Korea University of Graduate School, Doctorate Thesis. pp.160-163

[iv] “Peering into the North Korean economy, via satellite,” BBC News, 13 June 2013 ( July 2nd, 2016)

[v] 『North Korea’s July 1st Economic Reforms 7.1경제관리개선조치』 July 1st , 2002; 『내각결정 제27호 Juche 92 (2003) May 5th 』 ; 『 내각지시 제24호 Juche 92(2003) May 5th 』

[vi] Ibid. P.171.

[vii] “Peering into the North Korean economy, via satellite,” BBC News, 13 June 2013 ( July 2nd, 2016)

[viii]한재헌. (2016). 북한의 시장화와 도시의 통치성. 북한연구학회 춘계학술발표논문집, 2016(단일호), 271-295..p. 283.

[ix] “북한 장마당, 없는 것 없이 다 있다”, 남북교역 뉴스레터, May ,2013.

[x] “북한에 부는 ‘한류’ 열풍-아랫동네 알 (남한 DVD)에 주민도 군인도 푹 빠졌다”, 중앙시사매거진 2014년12호.

[xi] Sunny Yoon (2011).Reading Korean Wave : Media reception and Youth Culture in North Korea. Korean Journal of Journalism & Communication Studies, 55(1), 435-460. P. 445.

[xii] Ibid. P. 450.

[xiii] 『북한주민통일의식 2015』, 서울대학교 통일평화연구원,2015. P. 120.

[xiv] Ibid. p. 25.

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