During the North Korean famine between 1994-1998, the government, unable to feed its people, allowed private markets to spring up so that individuals could buy, sell or barter among themselves for basic goods. This small, capitalistic experiment, called jangmadang, was so successful, it continues to this day, writes Jieun Baek, (“The Opening of the North Korean Mind,” Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2017 pg.104-113.) This departure from repressive policies of the communist regime, she suggests, may lead to its undoing.
Members of the Jangmadang generation are those who grew up believing in private markets and who are taking the concept a step further. Despite severe penalties for selling contraband — imprisonment and possibly death – young entrepreneurs are crossing the border with China to bring back illicit goods, mainly western movies and TV shows. North Korea is a county where neighbors are encouraged to spy on each other, so the risk is high.
Technology has helped this underground market flourish. Batteries with a long life are key. Plugging a viewing device into North Korea’s electrical grid leaves signatures that can be traced. But batteries allow people to escape that means of detection and permit them to view entire movies without interruption. They also permit a person to watch programs away from outlets and under a blanket to escape prying eyes. Cell phone activity is traceable, but viewing a movie on an MP4 player is not. Devices from China have the added feature of a USB drive. The design permits a user to ditch the drive with contraband material if he or she comes under suspicion. On the main drive, authorities will likely find a government approved disk.
Slowly, through the aid of technology and the daring of the Jangmadang generation, western ideas are infiltrating the country. That invasion alone won’t ignite a revolution but getting information is a start.
Unfortunately, we at home have our work cut out for us, too. Unlike North Korea, our problem isn’t the absence of information but our inability to discern what is news and what’s fake news. Let us be happy that learning the distinction won’t cost our lives.
(First published 2/27/17)