Much has been written about the liberating power of information technology. The world saw its effect in Beijing in 1989, when democracy activists used facsimile machines to tell the outside world what was happening in Tiananmen Square, an event that prompted the late American strategic thinker Albert Wohlstetter to quip, "the fax shall make you free." The Buddhist monks who led a push for freedom in Burma in 2007 communicated with each other and the outside world through text messaging. A few years later, the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan rebels who overthrew their country's longstanding authoritarian leaders became friends on Facebook, micro-blogged on Twitter, and posted video and photographs on YouTube.
None of that could happen North Korea — yet. In information-technology terms, North Korea is locked in a time warp. It is Ground Hog's Day 1953 over and over again. Founder Kim Il Sung understood the power of information, and after the Korean War ended, he made sure that his regime had a monopoly on it. It was a lesson that the late Kim Jong Il also learned and that he appears to have handed down to his son and heir, Kim Jong Eun, who has taken steps to seal off the border with China. None of the modern technologies that connect us to each other and the world at large are available in North Korea. There is no text messaging, no email, no photo sharing, no social networking.
Even a low-tech form of information technology — the mail service — is highly restricted. North Korea is a member of the Universal Postal Union, but it has direct postal service with a limited number of countries. South Korea is not among them. Contrast this with East and West Germany. Throughout the Cold War, Germans in one part of the divided country could send letters to their relatives in the other part of the country. Koreans have not been able to do so for sixty years. If a South Korean wants to communicate with a North Korean, there are no institutional channels by which to do so.
But all this is changing, made possible by the North Koreans who have fled to China and, especially, by those who have gone on to South Korea or the West. North Koreans may be in exile, but they are determined to find ways to communicate with their families and friends at home. The leaders of the information invasion are North Koreans now in exile and intent on getting information into and out of their country.
In South Korea, the North Korean diaspora has established an array of nonprofit organizations aimed at prying open North Korea by providing its citizens with information banned there. Four independent radio stations, founded and staffed by refugees, broadcast from Seoul to North Korea. A Web magazine run by exiles is publishing information gathered by a stable of covert reporters operating in North Korea. A think tank is developing back-channel lines of communications with intellectuals and military officers in North Korea. These efforts are funded by private sources from South Korea and, in the United States, by the State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit, bipartisan organization created by Congress in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts. In 2011, the National Endowment for Democracy spent $1.3 million on programs supporting human rights, development, and democracy in North Korea.
North Korean exiles perform three essential functions in opening up their homeland. Above all, they are conduits of information. Through calls on illegal Chinese cellphones, remittances, and other interactions, the refugees provide a window on the wider world to family members still locked inside North Korea. Word of mouth may be a pre-technology way of spreading information, but it is effective. When North Koreans hear a trusted relative describe his life in South Korea, his conversion to Christianity, or his new understanding of North Korea's history, they are likely to believe what he says, even when it contradicts Pyongyang's propaganda.
Second, North Koreans who settle in South Korea serve as a "bridge population," in the words of the president of the National Endowment of Democracy, Carl Gershman. The exiled North Koreans link their homeland with South Korea and the world at large. These people, Gershman said, are "giving voice to the voiceless society left behind."
In this respect, the information invasion works two ways. First, it ferrries information about the outside world into North Korea. Second, it enables exiles to get information out of North Korea. In addition to educating their fellow citizens left behind in North Korea, the exiles are also finding success in interpreting their secretive country to the larger world. In recent years, a mini-surge of books, articles, documentaries, TV shows, and websites has presented refugees' stories about life in North Korea. These have given the world an unprecedented window on life in North Korea. It is harder than it ever was for anyone — especially South Koreans — to hide their heads in the sand and pretend they do not know the brutal realities of life in that country.
Third, as a population acculturated to the South but with roots in the North, the refugees are preparing for the eventual integration of North Korea into a united Korea. They will be a vital resource when that occurs. This is especially true of the under-thirty generation. As was the case in Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism, young North Koreans are more intellectually malleable, more open to new ideas than their elders are. Gershman calls them the 1.5 generation. He says these young exiles are sucking up information about the Western world: "how people in South Korea and other countries respect and defend human rights and democracy, how political parties organize and campaign, how workers fight for their rights and entrepreneurs compete in the marketplace, how journalists report the news and NGOs educate, defend, and give voice to society."
Young North Korean exiles are also more receptive than their elders are to South Korea's culture of education and hard work. When the time comes for rebuilding North Korea, the corps of educated and highly motivated North Koreans in exile will be a valuable resource.
From Escape From North Korea by Melanie Kirkpatrick. Copyright 2012 by Melanie Kirkpatrick. Excerpted by permission of Encounter Books.