This essay is part of a series, Pursuing Peaceful Coexistence with North Korea, that explores how the United States and South Korea can peacefully coexist with a nuclear North Korea. 

In recent years, North Korea has become more repressive, more impoverished and more allergic to the outside world. Already turning inward after the failure of diplomatic efforts in 2019, the North Korean government isolated itself further amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. North Korea has learned to operate, and Kim Jong Un has learned to rule, with greater levels of self-isolation than aggressive international sanctions regimes could ever hope to impose. Given North Korea’s current mode of rejecting even humanitarian assistance and its recent turn toward Russia, the chances for diplomatic breakthroughs with Pyongyang look like a wishful long-term hope at best.

Members of the New York Philharmonic waved to the audience as they left the stage following their historic concert in Pyongyang on Feb. 26, 2008. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)
Members of the New York Philharmonic waved to the audience as they left the stage following their historic concert in Pyongyang on Feb. 26, 2008. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

The longstanding mistrust between the United States and North Korea and the intractability of the denuclearization stalemate mean that the United States should take a long-term approach that manages and ameliorates security concerns on all sides but also facilitates a positive transformation of North Korea through increased information access for the North Korean people. This can be done, in some ways, through the consensual exchange of information within initiatives and mechanisms that parts of the North Korean government have previously demonstrated an interest in, and in other ways that do not rely on the North Korean government’s acquiescence. Ultimately, such a positive transformation of North Korea will help improve security on the peninsula and in the region in a sustainable way.

How to Increase Information Access for the North Korean People

The U.S. and South Korean governments and civil society accelerating information access for the North Korean people need not be framed as a significant new act of hostility toward the North Korean government or aimed at ending the regime, and it need not disrupt security goals or undermine other potential areas of cooperation. The North Korean government already has a maximalist narrative and assumption of adversarial cultural policies targeted at it by the U.S. and South Korean governments, but historically has only reacted aggressively to what it sees as overt and hostile information campaigns such as publicized balloon launches and loudspeakers at the demilitarized zone.

Increased public diplomacy efforts to share knowledge with the North Korean people can occur and will be more effective without fanfare or even immediate visibility. Also, these efforts should proceed in partnership with the North Korean people rather than being imposed on them, and should cover broad information areas rather than focusing on disparaging the North Korean leadership. It can be an inflection point in meaningful assistance to the North Korean people in a long-term process of shaping their government’s operating environment toward international norms, where their more extreme ideologies and problematic security policies lose their utility. 

For the past 20 years, many North Koreans have engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the North Korean authorities, using various methods and technologies such as smuggled SD cards and laptops to access illicit news, media and knowledge. When North Koreans have been winning this game, they have increased their resilience to the government’s denial of information and methodical distribution of misinformation, which is crucial to the government’s carefully curated legitimacy and ideologies.

Greater awareness of the relative wealth of the outside world and the internal reasons for North Korea’s poverty can raise the people’s aspirations and build pressure on the government to not just promise but also deliver on improving the economy. The more people know about other countries and the less they fear the United States, South Korea and the chance of being subjugated by ill-willed outsiders, the less useful their government’s threat narrative will be, and the less justified their national security orientation and investment in missiles and nuclear weapons will become. And the more North Koreans understand the basic rights and government accountability achieved by people in neighboring countries, the more they will resent and push back on their own government’s abuse of power and draconian restrictions.

Ultimately, initiatives that challenge the North Korean government’s control over information can help constrain its more aggressive narratives and policy options, push it to be more economy-oriented, improve human rights and help it develop into a less problematic member of the international community. 

Countering the North Korean Government’s Control

In recent years, North Korean defectors have described a nascent community of anti-censorship hackers within the country. Young, tech-savvy North Koreans are using new methods and programs to disable restrictions imposed by the government on North Korean mobile operating systems and are applying anti-forensics tools on computers in order to overcome government-mandated locks and surveillance. North Korea’s December 2020 Reactionary Ideology and Culture Rejection Law, which made it a punishable offense to “illegally install operating system programs on other people’s mobile phones,” suggests that the North Korean government is seeking to counter these efforts.

The international community should give such North Koreans more security by developing digital hygiene kits comprised of anti-surveillance and anti-censorship tools tailored to North Korean technologies and risk environments. This area tends to fall in a blind spot for technologists working on information freedom globally, as they are focused on users with at least some internet access. Savvy North Koreans are already using off-the-shelf tools downloaded in China and smuggled into sharing networks inside the country to overcome government surveillance and censorship. New and adapted tools tailored to the North Korean environment would be more secure, easier to use by a wider range of North Koreans and would increase people’s sense of safety despite crackdowns, while empowering them to protect themselves from detection and punishment when accessing, creating, storing and sharing media that the government wants to deny them.

Artificial intelligence (AI) tools like ChatGPT can also play a role. The challenge for North Koreans is that their computers, even networked ones, are isolated from the global internet. But in the fast-moving world of AI, researchers have already shown that it is possible to locally run a ChatGPT-like Large Language Model (LLM) offline on an entry-level personal computer. Imagine North Koreans being able to engage a South Korean LLM in an offline, secure conversation where they can ask a progressive series of questions and receive natural responses on anything they might be curious to discuss (ranging from innocuous topics to potentially subversive ones). 

There is currently a small network of North Korean defectors, activists, researchers and technologists working on this challenge. This is an area where South Korean researchers and technologists have traditionally seen little reward and therefore had very low involvement, and they need to be encouraged by funders and governments to step up. The benefits of co-location and shared language with many defectors and activists working in this space would make a significant contribution to these efforts.

Establishing Toeholds in North Korean Society through Exchanges

The United States and the international community should also make sure they do not obstruct initiatives that can empower change. People-to-people exchanges, such as in sports, music, science and academia, can provide valuable opportunities for North Koreans to travel and learn about other cultures and systems. Likewise, foreigner visits to North Korea can help broaden interest and understanding and dispel misconceptions created by narrow media coverage.

Currently, U.S. restrictions on U.S. citizen travel to North Korea, limitations on North Korean visits to the United States and restrictions on certain transactions between Americans and North Koreans hinder people-to-people interactions between the two countries. North Korea’s own limits on travel abroad and foreign visits compound the situation. The U.S. government should ensure that it is only the North Korean government that denies these opportunities. Efforts to deny visas or interactions to further isolate or increase pressure on North Korea over security concerns would be ineffective, reinforce Pyongyang’s worst instincts and impede precious opportunities for some North Koreans to gain some freedoms even for a short time.

Similarly, if the United States and North Korea can reach any interim deal that includes sanctions relief with snapback provisions in return for progress on arms controls, sanctions against North Koreans living and working overseas should be revised first. Even with these sanctions, North Koreans continue to work abroad, particularly in China and Russia. But if these sanctions are adjusted, North Koreans could work in a broader range of countries, their visa situations could be regularized and there could be a push for better compliance with International Labour Organization standards and improvements in conditions and share of pay. Rather than denying opportunities that many North Koreans compete for and pay bribes to get, the international community should work to ensure that North Korean laborers experience protection of their rights abroad and understand that this is what they are entitled to as humans.

As the above examples illustrate, North Koreans can gain an increased understanding of new ideas and the outside world through both “normal” activities that are mutually beneficial and agreed upon, as well as through unilateral efforts at public diplomacy that support the North Korean people’s access to knowledge without the acquiescence of the North Korean government.

North Korean Refugees as Agents of Change

North Korean refugees themselves can also help accelerate positive informational and economic changes. Although the flow of refugees almost dried up during the pandemic, the number of arrivals in South Korea is ticking upwards again since the end of China’s “Zero Covid” restrictions. North Korean defectors provide crucial insights, awareness and advocacy about their country and collaborate on tailored information and technology solutions for the North Korean people, which helps North Koreans understand the outside world. In addition, North Korean defectors directly send money and information to relatives and friends still inside North Korea. The remittances provide much-needed food and medicine as well as seed capital, sometimes extended through grassroots microlending, for entrepreneurial activities that accelerate bottom-up marketization and increase the North Korean people’s agency and aspirations.

It is therefore important that the international community protects and assists North Korean refugees and ensures that as many as possible can find safe passage to resettlement countries. The more successful North Korean defectors are in their resettlement, the more effective they can be as partners and agents of change on this issue. In this regard, there should also be increased investment in tailored capacity-building programs to give resettled North Koreans new skills, greater success in their new lives and more potential to contribute to change in their homeland.

Conclusion: Take Heart

There is significant potential for international civil society to play a role in reforming North Korea. In South Korea, young people are increasingly disinterested in North Korea as the ninth decade of a divided peninsula approaches, and the vision of a reunified Korea inevitably resonates less and less. This presents a challenge because reunification, despite Kim Jong Un’s recent about-face, is still the South Korean and U.S. governments’ stated goal and remains the dominant framework for thinking about future change and solutions for North Korea. However, if civil society organizations and governments can engage young South Koreans on North Korea in a people-centric, non-politicized way without focusing on reunification, they can tap into latent reservoirs of interest and support for the people with shared language and heritage who live just a few mountains to the north.

Furthermore, if there is growing and visible interest and engagement on this issue among North and South Korean-born youth in Seoul, there is significant potential for transnational solidarity and growing regional and global support, especially among young people who are increasingly interested in all things Korean. This is crucial both for stimulating governments and other actors to be more proactive, but also to increase mutual learning and cooperation between civil society organizations working for change in authoritarian countries in East Asia and around the world.

Mobilizing resources for initiatives designed to empower the North Korean people and the changes that have been slow burning for two decades isn’t just for bleeding hearts; it is the best strategy available for promoting progress and peace on the Korean Peninsula and in the region.

Sokeel Park is the South Korea country director for Liberty in North Korea, an international nongovernmental organization working with North Korean defectors for change in North Korea.

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