Book Review: North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society by Jieun Baek

Jieun Baek North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society

By Sonia Su

Jieun Baek’s North Korea’s Hidden Revolution gives agency and voice to North Korean defectors, using her eleven years of experiences with defectors and sources of all walks of life to illustrate the power and potential of sustained information dissemination to change both perceptions of and actual foundations of the enigmatic regime. Dedicated to her grandparents who had fled from to South Korea in 1948 before the peninsula split, the book weaves some autobiographical details into the stories from interviews with ten main North Korean defectors, who range from former military officers to the children of the jangmadang (literally, “market grounds;” refers to growing up with reliance on black markets versus meager government rations) generation. Published by Yale University Press in 2016, Baek’s book coincides with the August 2016 high-profile defection of Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the U.K. His remarks over one year later at a CSIS event and subsequent testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee* reveal aspirations echoed in Baek’s book and her interviewees’ accounts.

A self-proclaimed devout Christian, Baek first provides a basic overview of North Korea’s history, military, human rights record, and information-related crimes, which then leads into the first of the ten core narratives from the defectors. Dr. Park Se-Joon’s story, however, shows that what started his spiral of disillusionment was not foreign information, but rather a pitiful scene he witnessed at a remote train station inside the famine-stricken country. How he felt seeing the kotjebis (homeless children) for the first time contributed to his eventual defection. Of course, the more commonly told narrative, which follows Dr. Park’s, invariably includes exposure to various aspects of hallyu, or the Korean wave. Foreign films, dramas, books, encyclopedias, and more continue to be smuggled across borders from China and South Korea with the aim of affecting North Koreans’ social and political consciousness. One of the more creative methods includes images of the Kim dynasty attached to subversive leaflets. While possessing the leaflets constitutes a crime, tampering with or disposing of such images is deemed an even more heinous crime; thus, both the civilians and the police face a catch-22 (95). Nevertheless, Baek uses these stories to support how the resulting curiosity and cognitive dissonance plant the seeds for change.

Jieun Baek North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed SocietyBut while the human instinct of curiosity, fueled by efforts to disseminate information, plays an important role in changing the minds of North Koreans, Baek repeatedly emphasizes that the path to action remains nonlinear. Namely, defecting to China while knowingly putting relatives in grave danger often requires months, if not years, of internal conflict, along with financial and logistical planning.

Besides the power of information, transforming this closed society also derives power from illicit cross-border trade and black markets—or simply, money. The rise of bribe culture means profit motivates more and more people, so much so that a recent young defector told Baek, “The government says North Korea is socialist, but that’s not true. North Korea is capitalistic. You can solve anything with money. Truly” (185).

While Baek, a current University of Oxford doctoral candidate, shares insightful accounts from various North Korean defectors, each account is just that. Lengthy blockquotes from defectors consume the majority of the book’s contents, which lack more in-depth critical analyses of such stories or trends. A SOAS University of London professorial associate goes so far as to assert Baek’s unintentional “othering” by inserting insufficient (almost irrelevant) personal details:

Inadequate research, along with a failure to engage in self-reflection (this is, after all, billed as a first-person account), results in an “othering” of North Korean defectors and those whose way of life is different from the author’s experience. This is summed up for me in a story Baek tells of a meal with friends and North Korean defectors in San Francisco, where “over hummus, olive oil and zaatyr, and lamb kebabs, we chatted excitedly” about North Korea. … Her friend has to explain to Baek that his mother prefers to remain in her home and society and social networks … Edward Said would have recognised this orientalist approach to the “other” that is so prevalent in writing on North Korea, much of which is also characterised by a disinclination to carry out the hard work of delving into the now very extensive body of research materials on the country.**

Indeed, while these direct copy-and-paste transcriptions may be better simply separated into first-person short stories instead, Baek does conclude strongly in the last chapter. She entertains the reader with discussions of the need for regime change and the likelihood of reunification, providing hints of the long-awaited, belated theory and policy perspectives.

Hidden Revolution reveals stories of the North Koreans’ incredible resilience. But in telling these stories, which inherently have common themes, Baek still too often repeats the facts that informational dissemination is not the magic bullet for change, and that many defectors did not immediately made a decision to defect. Similarly, raising awareness, while undoubtedly essential and as this book does very well, is not enough. The worldwide efforts to help the victims of such a repressive regime and potentially reunify the peninsula will require the commitment of various state and non-state actors, as well as everyday citizens.

* Stanton, Joshua. “A top defector risked his life to tell us of Pyongyang’s plans & vulnerabilities. The media put its own words in his mouth.”
** Smith, Hazel. “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society, by Jieun Baek.”