With recent events having raised hopes that significant change may be afoot in North Korea, it is important to remember that DPRK society has in fact been undergoing steady transformation for a considerable period of time. Among the most important dimensions of this are the changes that have occurred in the kind of information North Koreans have access to, and this is the subject of Jieun Baek‘s excellent North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground Is Transforming a Closed Society (Yale University Press, 2016).
Based on interviews with North Koreans who have settled in the South, Baek shows how everything from television programs to foreign affairs coverage and fashion has made its way into the country from the outside world. DPRK citizens today live in a much more informationally open society than the all-too-common ‘hermit kingdom’ label would imply. As well as getting a rich sense of the very personal stories that often underlie the movement of information, goods and cash into the country, we also come from Baek’s work to understand the elaborate networks of smugglers, traders and intermediaries who facilitate its passage. Appreciating all of the complexity around North Korea’s involvement in global flows, and how the Pyongyang government is responding to this, will surely be crucial whatever course this state and its people take over the coming months and years.
Ed Pulford is a postdoctoral researcher at the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center, Hokkaido University. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and northeast Asian indigenous groups.