On Political Books

July/August 2011 Watching Titanic in Pyongyang

What the first systematic survey of North Korean refugees tells us about life inside the Hermit Kingdom, and about whether the regime might be ready to fall.

By Geoffrey Cain

The authors partially got around the representation problem through statistical modeling. They created projections of the views of the general population based on the refugees’ characteristics—age, gender, and occupation, as well as life experiences such as receipt of food aid or arrest and detention—offering a remarkable glimpse into the closed state.

Since the famine in the 1990s, humanitarian do-gooders and policymakers have tried unsuccessfully to alleviate the plight of North Koreans even as they hope to persuade Kim Jong Il to give up his nuclear weapons and join the community of nations. Their attempts have included engagement known as the “Sunshine Policy,” six-party talks, and the donor aid of the late ’90s. More importantly, however, the world needs to push China to change its refugee policy. China has a policy of repatriating North Korean defectors because it recognizes them as “economic migrants” and therefore not refugees under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, to which China is a signatory. But China’s assertion rests on an inconsistency. One legal basis for claiming refugee status is a fear of persecution upon return to the fatherland—a stipulation that should make refugees out of nearly all North Korean defectors. Still, North Korea and China remain stubbornly impervious to blandishments and change.

What, then, might lead to a collapse of North Korea? Andrei Lankov, a prolific historian of the country, told me that three factors will be needed for revolt: a way for the dissidents to communicate with each other and with the outside world, a reasonable alternative to the current government, and a chance that the revolt will succeed. A better government is certainly possible for a country at rock bottom, and a chance for victory may be there. As this year’s North Africa protests have shown us, an angry populace can topple strongmen with little forewarning.

The third aspect of communication seems to be gaining a hold, an assertion backed by the data in Witness to Transformation. The protests against the currency reform in 2009 were scant and disorganized, but they revealed that the government was willing to reverse policies when it faced opposition. Giving more reason for concern, North Korea appears to be experiencing yet another food shortage—an embarrassment after it asked charities and foreign governments, including famine-struck Zimbabwe, for assistance last spring. The recipe for discontent is brewing, and even if the regime does not lose its hold on power, some North Koreans will continue to subvert Kim Jong Il’s agenda in simpler, quieter ways.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

Geoffrey Cain covers North and South Korea for Time magazine.


  • Jacqueline on July 02, 2011 12:03 AM:

    A wonderful article, bringing up issues I truly was ignorant about,of a very secretive government.

  • Charles Lemos on July 18, 2011 8:42 PM:

    Errata: "Now they’re faced with an increasingly volatile Kim Il Sung, who, while in poor health, is attempting to prove to North Koreans that his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, will be the country’s next strong and unifying leader. "

    Kim Il Sung is such poor health that he died in July 1994. You mean Kim Jong-il.

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  • mattH on July 30, 2011 8:12 PM:

    Andrei Lankov, [...] told me that three factors will be needed for revolt: a way for the dissidents to communicate with each other and with the outside world, a reasonable alternative to the current government, and a chance that the revolt will succeed. A better government is certainly possible for a country at rock bottom...

    A country at rock bottom and a reasonable alternative to current government are not the same things. Unless you have a group who have set up an "alternative government" or organization that claims to represent North Koreans, you don't have an alternative, and I think we can safely say that the establishment of some alternative within North Korea isn't very likely without a rather complete de facto breakdown of the restrictions on communication, at the least. Pinning any hopes of some degree of influence on changing North Korea from the outside (a sentiment which an article like this attempting to engage) on a non-existent social movement is rather quixotic. Perhaps examining ways to create such a social movement, or breaking down those communication barriers, should be an integral part of the story, instead of eliding the positions of "rock bottom society" and "alternative government".

  • Scott on August 15, 2011 5:01 AM:

    These pollyannaish prescriptions leave me gobsmacked.

    Alleviate the plight of the North Koreans even as "half the respondents... said they were unaware of foreign food aid... (and) among those who did know about the aid, more than three-quarters reported not receiving it"? How do you propose foreign aid to reach those who need it? Ah, "the world needs to push China to change its (North Korean) refugee policy." How? Moral blandishments? And China would be moved to lighten up to what end? So that even more desperate North Korean refugees could flood the border and create more social problems in Northeast China?

  • Bill on August 15, 2011 10:19 AM:

    What's the cheapest, most-rugged, easiest-to-power text-enabled satellite phone? How much would it cost to sneak five to twenty million of them into the country? Let's say you could do that en masse for about 200 bucks per phone. 10 m x 200 = 2 billion dollars. 2 billion dollars?! Wait, is that cheaper than mounting a nuclear missile defense shield?

    While we're at it, give ever male in Iraq an xbox and a stack of p0rn. /End insurrection. Go home.


  • Mike on August 15, 2011 12:55 PM:

    What Bill said.

    Interesting article. In all seriousness, the best thing we could do might be to fly over NK and drop packages of magazines and DVDs.

  • Beau on August 15, 2011 1:22 PM:

    I would never invest in South Korea. It will bear the brunt of the cost of reunification if/when the North tips over.

    We saw the mess when the Berlin Wall came down and West Germany paid the reunification price.

  • Andrew Charles on August 16, 2011 3:31 PM:

    Change u need some aspect of the power apparatus to support the people , (in NK's case the elite Army units): they might for some force that can implement effective demonstrtions without attacking their own country so the currency protests are cause for some hope//// or foreign intervention as in Libya, ie by the US or China or both cause obviously China is probably going to be beyond antsy about US involvement, and with a strong Army dug into the bedrock of the East China / Korean creton it's a difficult proposition for the US and SK alone, though not impossible if the will exists in US I think the will is strong enough in SK though many would disagree.

  • Anselmus on August 20, 2011 1:31 PM:

    It would have behooved the authors to mention that this book is coming hot on the heels of a similar one, namely Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Remick, which appears to draw essentially the same conclusions and makes many of the same points, albeit on the strength of having interviewed only a very tiny sample of defectors.

    How does the commenter above think that one can just fly over a country and drop satellite phones? First, the North Koreans presumably have access to anti-aircraft weapons, and second, a destabilizing move like that is likely to trigger an artillery barrage that would take out a suburb of Seoul.

    The best thing to do is to ensure that radio and television broadcasts of international and South Korean programming is transmitted into North Korea. Numerous defectors have mentioned that watching regular news programs is when the scales fell from their eyes.

  • Anonymous on August 20, 2011 9:56 PM:

    @Anselmus: 'Nothing to Envy' is a good book, but it mentions that possessing a TUNABLE radio or TV is a prison offense in NK. So outside broadcasts have limited effect.