If sunshine is the best disinfectant, then giving the North Korean people the same access that the rest of the world has to information about their country, its history, and the world would probably be the best strategy for change.
Their compliance with their government effectively supports it more than anything else. That compliance makes sense, despite it appearing from our perspective against their long-term interests. Not complying can cost dearly. From what I hear
- The country’s network of informants surpasses that of the East German Stasi.
- The government punishes your family members for your actions.
- Punishments can be unilateral and draconian, including lifelong imprisonment, torture, and death.
- No system of free speech or communication network exists to organize protest.
- North Korea’s military is the largest in the world per capita.
- The government rewards loyalty to it in distributing resources like real estate and food.
These incentives strongly motivate compliance and deter change. I can’t see how someone in North Korea could feel secure acting to change things.
But I don’t think those incentives are the greatest force for stability, to maintain things the way they are. I believe the greatest force to maintain loyalty and the status quo is that the people don’t know any different. The people aren’t stupid or brainwashed. They just don’t have accurate information about the outside world.
The government knows this, which motivates its propaganda and strict control over information flow over its borders.
Getting new information into the country directly opposes the government’s two main strategies — stability and loyalty. The government will not permit it. The government routinely refuses aid, presumably to protect its borders.
North Korean televisions and radios are broken by design to receive only one station. The nation has alost no access to the internet. But people want to share information and as long as some interaction occurs across borders, they will. Smuggling media, especially dvds, is popular and growing, and brings an amount of information to North Koreans the government can hardly control. North Koreans watch a lot of movies and tv shows showing life outside their borders, revealing discrepancies between what their leaders say and what they see.
I consider this information the most disinfecting sunshine. The more smuggled media was clearly created unrelated to North Korea, the more genuinely it shows life outside North Korea, and the more it reveals to North Koreans watching the movies the discrepancies.
As Barbara Demick said at the Asia Society last year,
Demick argued that the regime finds “ideas” coming from across the border into North Korea more threatening than international policy or government actions and that Kim Jong-Il’s regime tightly controls all media inside North Korea.
Foreign media images of life outside the border in South Korea, showing well-fed people with consistent supplies of electricity and modern amenities, is what the regime finds most worrisome. Yet DVDs of South Korean programs and Western movies are being smuggled into the country by the millions. “The information that shows another world, those DVDs are devastating,” she said. As soon as North Koreans realize that they are worse off than much of the world, “it’s finished, when they realize they have something to envy.”
Changing North Koreans’ perspectives would change the system at one of its most powerful leverage points — the mindset it arises from.
The challenge in creating this change is that if any institution supports it, the North Korean government will oppose that institution. North Korea threatened military action against South Korea for sending balloons with information. Sponsorship by an institution that could be considered an enemy undermines the message’s credibility anyway. Media revealing regular life like South Korean soap operas or Hollywood movies most genuinely reveal life outside North Korea — that many people have cars, microwave ovens, and twenty-four hour electrical power.
Therefore, opening the border in any way permits the flow of this information. I consider tourism one of the more effective means of doing so, even if no tourist smuggles information. Tourists have cameras and money to spare. All of them. The same with sports, arts, education, and so on. The more North Korea depends on the rest of the world, the more such channels will stay open.
EDIT: I included much of this post and this series on strategy (edited and polished) in my ebook, Understanding North Korea: Demystifying the Worldâ€™s Most Misunderstood Country. I wrote the book to help increase understanding, communication, and freedom.