Sokeel Park on “Accelerating Bottom-up Change in North Korea”
By Matthew McGrath
On May 7, Mr. Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), explained how dynamic people-driven changes inside North Korea have drastically reshaped the country’s domestic landscape and will ultimately lead to their freedom.
Mr. Park began his talk by taking issue with the traditionally “very securitized” and “very politicized” narrative that the international media uses to describe the country and its people. He says the media typically portray the North Korean people as “brainwashed robots, fanatic loyalists, or passive victims,” and that the “problem of really focusing on the security aspects is that this plays into North Korea’s strengths and promotes a narrative that this is a very undynamic, unchanging, hopeless and impossible issue.” In its place, Mr. Park offered a human-focused narrative that demonstrates the existence of “dynamism and change” in North Korean society today.
To illustrate this point, Mr. Park outlined six transformative factors that his organization, LiNK, identified through numerous discussions with North Korean refugees. He contextualized these six points by explaining how “in the last twenty years it [North Korea] has become a completely different place,” adding that the six examples he chose to talk about are all “unstoppable, irreversible, long-term and eventually will lead to a transformation in North Korea in our lifetime.”
These six transformative factors were 1) bottom-up marketization, 2) corruption, 3) information flows, 4) North Korean defectors, 5) the jangmadang (market) generation, and 6) the emergence of human networks. To each of these, Mr. Park provided concrete examples of how they have contributed to empowering the North Korean people and gradually eroded the regime’s control. He explained that this process began in the 1990s with the collapse of the public distribution system and has given way to a reality in which the North Korean government “cannot recover the control of the rule of law without transforming the system.”
It would be unrealistic to assume that the transformative forces pushing for change inside North Korea would exist uninhibited. Mr. Park identified two “structural factors that slow down change.” These were 1) the level of brutality in control over public politics and 2) cohesiveness among the ruling elite. The regime’s stringent control over the general populous and the threat of being sent to a political prison camp have prevented the known rise of an outspoken dissenter in North Korea and “make quick radical change very difficult.” Mr. Park also drew a comparison between the Alawite minority in Syria and the ruling elite in Pyongyang. Both groups rule over a population of roughly the same size and stand to loose everything if the current system of governance in their respective countries is changed.
In spite of these inhibitors to change, Mr. Park feels that “deep-rooted systems level changes” in North Korea point to “long-term people driven changes that we can work with.” For the future, he identified three areas that should receive special attention. They were 1) working with North Korea defectors; 2) accelerating information flows; and 3) changing the traditional narrative.
In closing, Mr. Park described the situation in North Korea as one in which “progress is happening from the bottom up and is being driven by the North Korean people…They’ve developed habitual disobedience towards the system and they’re forcing a de facto partial liberalization and opening of the country, in spite of the regime’s efforts.” He also said “in the long run, it looks like one way or another this will lead to political level change in the government.” Ultimately, Mr. Park said that he believes the North Korean people “will achieve their liberty in our lifetime and there are things that all of us can do to help bring that change forward.”
For more on LiNK and its activities please visit their website here: libertyinnorthkorea.org