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Modern misconceptions of North Korea

Image 1. Kim Jong Un on a Unicorn. A lack of reliable information on the country means North Korea is often portrayed inaccurately, if not as completely bizarre.

The Korean War is oft referred to as the Forgotten War. Following the armistice signed in 1953, the country divided along the DMZ and particularly the Communist North, faded in memory for many. It wasn't until George W. Bush's 2002 presidential address that North Korea popped back onto the radar for a large amount of the American populace. Bush referred to the DPRK as "A regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens". This was the image branded into the minds of the western masses - the DPRK is an unpredictable regime ruled by a crazed dictator who starved and tortured his citizens all while flouting international law to pursue nuclear weaponization. Significant time has passed since the Bush administration's Axis of Evil and despite the change in circumstances for the citizens of North Korea, western stereotypes of the country have yet to be retrofitted. In particular, these misconceptions are most succinctly embodied by three subject areas. The first is hunger or more precisely that North Korea is in the constant grips of a famine which is exploited or perpetuated by the government. The second facet is a view that North Korea as a whole is a technologically backwards land where uneducated people live under a veil of ignorance of the outside world. The final piece of the triumvirate is a distorted view of the DPRK's economy; a view where its Communist economy is completely broken and the populace struggle to afford the basic necessities of life. So how exactly are these preconceived notions antiquated and what has in fact changed within the boarders of a modern day 'Hermit Kingdom'?

The first conception, that of a country perpetually on the verge of famine, is an outmoded perception. Widespread is the notion that starvation continues to haunt the Northern half of the peninsula and reports by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) have done nothing to alleviate this. In its 2013 session the UNHRC established the Commission on Human Rights in the DPRK. A resolution which called for investigation into the "systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular for violations which may amount to crimes against humanity." There is absolutely nothing wrong with criticizing the DPRK's past and present human rights record. However the report concluded that "...hunger and malnutrition continue to be widespread. Deaths from starvation continue to be reported" (2013) and names state policy biases as a primary factor behind such deaths. It is undeniable that the 1990s saw an absolutely devastating famine lash North Korea. It was a humanitarian disaster in which estimates place the death toll around 660,000, though no official figures are available. A myriad of factors contributed to the famine but it's important to realize that the starvation which overtook the DPRK was less a result of the state's inability to make policy choices and much more a reflection of the state's capacity to direct policies into the lacking socioeconomic sectors. Waning support from China and Russia and natural disasters along with North Korea's stubborn bureaucracy and a view of foreign aid as anathema all perfectly aligned to compound the suffering of the citizen body. However, the famine which struck wasn't uniform as the Northeastern parts of the country especially hard hit. The reason for the famine hitting particularly hard in those areas was due to their economic focus on mining industry and not from any particular government policy (Smith 2004). Since the famine in the 1990's, access to food and government policies towards its production have changed dramatically but reports like the one by the UNHRC continue to perpetuate an image of starvation. Thousands of other reports made by agencies actually residing within North Korea since 1991 are available online and, ironically enough, the UN World Food Program's own reports sit in stark contrast with those of the UNHRC. A joint report published by the UN World Food Program (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and UNICEF concludes the following key details; there is not an exceptional food crisis, there aren't famine like conditions, and the government does not carry the sole burden of responsibly in the arena of food access (2011). Further continued reading of the 2011 WFP/FOA/UNICEF report would reveal the UNHRC's cherry picking of details from and misrepresentation of facts from said report which they used to arrive upon their 2013 conclusions. While six years have passed since the 2011 report, a 2016 report by the The Korean Institute for National Unification entitled 'White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea' has effectively identified a plethora of steps taken by the government which have enhanced every day access to food (2016).

Yet another myth which continues to perpetuate itself is that North Korea is a society completely closed off from the outside; a place which has produced propaganda infused, mindless drones living in complete ignorance. As far as education is concerned, North Korea continues to send its elite citizens to study abroad; Kim Jung-Un himself being a product of such practices. It may also come as a surprise to many that North Korea even hosts exchange students from foreign counties, allowing them to study in places like the prestigious Kim Il-Sung Institute. Additionally, North Koreans do come into contact with Non-Koreans, especially those living in Pyongyang where tourists and foreign diplomats aren't a rare sight. The DPRK had also previously invested heavily into education and especially literacy. Much of its literacy programs were designed for more effective osmosis of propaganda by the masses but it has regardless created a nearly completely literate population of avid readers. While a vast amount of the texts North Koreans read are indeed government propaganda, foreign works of fiction have become much more common place in recent years. This doesn't appear to be a merely recent phenomena limited to books and it would seem that access to foreign entertainment has actually been allowed since the 1980s. Foreign films have enjoyed regular weekend airings on TV (Gabroussenko, 2016) and while many foreign DVDs still remain illegal, the openness and access to such items has expanded greatly in recent years (Seliger et al, 2014). As far as technology goes Kim Jong-Il was reported to have said that the war of the 21st century is no longer one of oil or bullets, but of information (Seliger et al, 2014). A statement which sits in glaring contrast when juxtaposed to his nuclear weapons policy, but one which nevertheless bears examination as it reflects attitudes towards the internet in the DPRK as a whole. Pyongyang itself is at a point where it certainly cannot ignore the internet. Multiple factors including national representation, business interests, and asymmetrical warfare have all forced the country to open its door to the powers of the internet. In 2017 the WannaCry virus wrecked havoc across the globe. Affecting some 200,000 computers in over 180 countries, the full scope of the havoc it wrought is best encapsulated by the impact it had on Britain's National Health Service. Vital medical records were held ransom, hundreds of operations were canceled, and ambulances were diverted to different hospitals in the wake of confusion caused by the infected computers. Brad Smith, the head of Microsoft, along with the NSA and many others are fairly certain this attack originated from the DPRK (Harley, 2017). But it doesn't stop there; this virus was original breed by America's NSA meaning the North Korean hackers were skilled enough to steal it from there in the first place. This is hardly the first time such an impact has been left by North Korean hackers and such action certainly isn't within the capacity of a tech-illiterate nation. The DPRK takes hacking extremely seriously and entry into one of its cyber-warfare is highly competitive. Prospects are vetted from elementary school and promising candidates are even sent abroad to China or Russia for additional training. Internet warriors accepted into the ranks of the online regiments are placed into the upper echelons of North Korea, may move to Pyongyang with their families, have access to the internet outside of their country, and may travel freely. In addition to all of this, even smart phones are becoming common place in cities like Pyongyang. 2002 saw the introduction of mobile phones into the DPRK and while the original intention was to place these into the hands only of the elite, this plan quickly gave way to wider consumption (Seliger, 2014). 1.5 million phones were registered in 2013 with access to a 3G network boasting all the perks normally associated with the expected exception of an open internet and, of course, international calling. This correlates to roughly 20 percent of the DPRK's entire population (Seliger, 2014). While one should not conflate any of the above with free and open access to information, as use of the world wide web is highly restricted to approximately 1,000 connections in a county of around 24 million, it's clear that North Korea is far more tech-savvy and less shut off from the outside than popular myth would espouse.

Our third and final fiction is one of a sluggish and undeveloped economy. President Trump has recently pushed for the implementation of some of the most heavy handed sanctions yet imposed on Pyongyang and time soon tell if these will have their intended effect. Yet it should strike one as odd that tougher sanctions were even needed considering how many years they have already been placed on the country. The UN has imposed various forms of sanctions since 2006 and the US House of Representatives and Senate nearly unanimously passed the 2016 North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Despite sanctions being such an intimate part of the DPRK's recent history, little impact has been recorded suggesting that the economy of the country is far more resilient and robust than typically thought. North Korea has displayed surprising agility when it had come to working around trade sanctions (Jung, 2016). North Korea's increased reliance on Sino-Korean trade has played a large role in this. Private Chinese firms have been special arrangements with North Korean mining firms while the flow of textile goods travels through China and into 3rd party hands (Jung, 2016). This works in tandem with the close-knit nature of North Korea's ruling elite and its ability to brutally repress public dissent. A small and concentrated ruling class is much easier to shield from sanctions than a large, more multi-polar one; Iran being a prime example (Peksen, 2016). Regardless of how sanctions have been subverted, Pyongyang economic policies seem to have borne fruit. Investment in the mining and energy sectors has spurned economic growth and was coupled by exports to China. Numbers for North Korea's missile and nuclear program were included in the calculations but the Bank of Korea estimates that the North Korean economy experienced a 3.6% economic growth in 2016 in spite of the barrage of sanctions leveled at it; this was a 17 year high (Hutt, 2017). 3.6% isn't an impressive number but the purpose of these numbers isn't to impress - the point is to illustrate that the DPRK's economy isn't defunct. Combined with this growth is a nation which is home to a vibrant informal market economy. While the DPRK refers to itself as communist, it's clear that reality doesn't match this. Many market transactions are conducted using Chinese yuan or even US dollars and this became especially pronounced following the governments devaluation of the NK Won in 2009. The government set rate of 96 won per one US dollar is completely ignored by most sectors of the economy as even banks have moved much closer to its black-market rate, something like 8,000 won to the dollar. This means things like a subway ride on the Pyongyang metro is outrageously cheap while black-market pricing has even become common in ordinary shops; a toy shop in Pyongyang was seen charging 46,000 won for a basketball. The North Korean diaspora also funnels an annual sum of around 15 million dollars back to their Motherland per year. Not an impressive amount but money could make the difference between life and death for the impoverished. This inward flow of cash is also combined with North Korean overseas business operations. Most famously, these include North Korean restaurants that operate within China and a handful of other Southeast Asian countries which not only provide hard currency inflow but also way to tumble legally earned cash with that of more illicit activities (Tudor et al, 2015). Indeed, far from being strictly communist, the North Korea government is, at times, complicit in economic marketization. Booths called 'Jangmadang' provide us the insight we need into such a scenario. These are small, privately controlled market stalls which (privately) sell goods of all types from rice, to cigarettes, foreign goods, and yes, even American Coca-Cola. The owners of these stalls pay a tax to Party officials and when all parts are combined there is most certainly traces of a capitalist economy at work (Tudor et al, 2015). China has previously played a large role in helping the DPRK to avoid damaging sanctions but it also appears that the North Korean economy is much more complex and agile than previously assumed.

It's quite obvious that the West is up for a perception change over North Korea. Advancements have been made to alleviate food problems, marking a contrast to the stereotype of a society perpetually on the verge of famine. Technology has also begun to make a steady drip into the country and while it tends to be concentrated into the hands of the wealthy or connected, it goes to show that North Koreans as a whole aren't tech-illiterate. Finally, the North Korean economy has not only continued to survive multiple waves of sanctions and even managed to show economic growth. This article isn't a commentary on the DPRK's human rights record; far from it. Indeed, if we ever wish to see a change in relations with North Korea we must first understand and come to terms with exactly what is being dealt with.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

Daniel Mitchum is an intern at NKR and a Master's candidate at Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies.


Smith, H. (2004), Intelligence Failure and Famine in North Korea, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 2 (No 5)

Korea Institute for National Unification (2016), White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea. Seoul, Korea Institute for National Unification

Gabroussenko, T (2016), Recreational Reading in North Korea, Korea Observer, Vol. 47 (No 3), pp. 493-525

Seliger, B and Schmidt, S (2014) The Hermit Kingdom Goes Online … Information Technology, Internet Use and Communication Policy in North Korea, North Korea Review, Vol. 10 (No. 1), pp. 71-88

Harley, N (2017) North Korea behind WannaCry attack which crippled the NHS after stealing US cyber weapons, Microsoft chief claims. Retrieved from;

Hutt, S (2017) North Korea's economy grew nearly 4% last year - despite sanctions. Retrieved from;

Tudor, D and Pearon, J (2015) North Korea Confidential, Rutland, Vermont, USA: Tuttle Publishing

Jung, S (2016) Effects of Economic Sanctions on North Korea–China Trade: A Dynamic Panel Analysis, Seoul Journal of Economics,Vol. 29 (No. 4)

Peksen, D (2017) Why Economic Sanctions Have Failed Against North Korea. Retrieved from;

WFP, FAO, and UNICEF (2011) Rapid food security assessment mission to the Democratic People’s

Republic of Korea. Bangkok, World Food Programme.

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