A crisp, dramatic examination of how technology and human ingenuity are undermining North Korea’s secretive dictatorship.
Baek, a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, synthesizes diverse research, including her own monitored visits and interviews within the hidden diaspora of successful defectors, to produce a comprehensible academic study attuned to the human toll of North Korea’s oppressive regime. Despite the authorities’ determination to punish any rebellion, the author argues, “over the past two decades there have been cracks in the state’s control over the dissemination of information among citizens.” A horrific famine in the 1990s necessitated tolerance for informal markets, which later established smuggling routes for new technologies like USB drives and smartphones. This both fed and was amplified by the stream of defections to China and South Korea, which continued in spite of the cruelties the regime directed toward defectors’ families. Baek looks at the challenges faced by those who flee: “When defectors cross into China, their minds are opened and their worlds change.” Her interviews with such individuals buttress her thesis that the new wave of information sharing serves as inspiration, despite the state’s intrusive surveillance. She documents smuggling methodologies and the material that North Koreans desire, ranging from South Korean pop music and films to religious texts and Voice of America–style news broadcasts as well as Japanese DVD players and inexpensive radios, all available on the black market. Since North Korean society has a strict caste system, Baek argues that this amplifies the forbidden desires among less favored citizens to question the government and ultimately pursue a better life, despite the strong tendency to conform within an authoritarian state. Baek’s writing is clear and patiently structured, which makes her interviewees’ accounts of brutal treatment and the inner revelations caused by smuggled media seem more urgently affecting.
An original, authentic take on the fissures developing behind North Korea’s totalitarian facade.