IRI’s Julija Belej Bakovic posts on CIPE’s Development Blog

Dissent of the North Koreans: Against All Odds
CIPE Development Blog
By Julija Belej Bakovic

For more than 60 years, the Kim regime of North Korea has succeeded in part because it was able to control the country’s people through isolation and fear, sending entire families to political prison camps (Korean word) for possessing banned books or demonstrating any opposition to the country’s leadership.  This is starting to change.  

In the world’s most isolated society, we are beginning to see signs that the tide might actually be turning.  Late last year, in a swift move to regain control over money flow in the country, the regime announced revaluation of the currency and a limit of equivalent to $40 for individuals’ old money to be exchanged for the new currency.  North Koreans surprisingly dared to express their dissatisfaction.  There were reports of people burning the old money they couldn’t exchange (that the regime effectively made worthless) or throwing it into the river.  The currency bares pictures of “Eternal Leader,” Kim Il Sung, and the act of destroying it constitutes a political crime.  Furthermore, in the past three decades, nearly 17,000 North Koreans have fled the oppression of their home country to seek refuge in the South.  In recent years, the number of arrivals in the South has increased to nearly 3,000 a year, a rate that cannot be ignored.  Many of these defectors are dedicating time, effort and resources to chip away at the authoritarian government that keeps their countrymen in the dark.

Take for example three radio stations, Free North Korea Radio, North Korea Reform Radio and Radio Free Chosun.  These organizations, led by individuals who escaped from the North, are transmitting vital information into North Korea via radio broadcasts covering subjects such as democracy, human rights and the truth about the Korean War.  Other groups in South Korea launch balloons with leaflets on these topics, as well as DVDs and cell phones, into the country across the demilitarized zone.

And these groups are only part of the equation.  In addition, organizations such as North Korea Intellectual Solidarity (NKIS), People for Successful Corean Reunification (PSCORE) and Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulag (NK Gulag) all work to advocate for changes in the policy approach to the North, to increase the involvement of South Korean youth on issues of human rights and reunification and to raise awareness of the system of prison camps within North Korea.

All of these things are encouraging developments that demonstrate the North Korean people’s desire for change.  Their challenge is enormous but their cause is noble; they deserve our help.   As we focus on the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, we must not forget about those living under the regime with which we are negotiating.  We must support a group of organizations and activists that are providing access to information to those still in the North and are set on sharing with the rest of the world the story of terrible oppression that is part of every aspect of their lives.  

As a part of these efforts, the  HYPERLINK “” International Republican Institute has worked to support and assist North Korea democracy and human rights groups like those mentioned above to build their leadership skills and organizational capacity.  The Institute has organized trainings ranging from elementary topics of organizational management to more advanced subjects of program development and political outreach.  IRI has also worked with radio programs to create broadcasting content and to support policy development projects.

The history of the North Korean totalitarian regime officially started after the refusal of the North to participate in a United Nations supervised election held in the south in 1948 and establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  The work of the groups led by the North Korean defectors described in this article is an appeal to their country to live up to its name.

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