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North Korea has been portrayed for decades as a monolithic gulag network filled with
slaves and a hellhole by the mass media. The socio-economic changes North Korea has
undergone over the last decade or more have been almost entirely unreported. Indeed, by
the beginning of 2017, mass starvation had long ceased, while more and better-assorted
markets emerged throughout the country (and yet you’re still reading that “North Korea’s
regime is starving its population”). Fewer people are punished for political crimes than in
the past (but you still read that three generations of a family are sent to the gulag for the
slightest political crime). The rising middle class has been transforming the rigid old
political class system since marketization has enabled people from lower classes to build
their own business, with some becoming rich and even more influential than many party
and government officials from the privileged “core class,” something prohibited two
decades ago. Yet, you’re still told by the media that a North Korean’s fate is solely defined
by the social “caste” he belongs to and so on. Business people around the world have had
no access to any news of positive progress, while any stories of “normal” development are
generally considered not to be newsworthy by the media.
Alas, the strangulating economic embargo which was imposed later in 2017, a de facto
collective punishment, is bound to reverse this progress, causing enormous and
unnecessary suffering to the North Korean people. I will come back to this later.
Despite my firsthand knowledge and insights gleaned from my time in this isolated
country, my views have been largely ignored by the mainstream media. The reason for
this, I believe, is because I have tried to be as fair and objective as possible, instead of
merely trashing the country as I’ve been expected to. Furthermore, I belong to a
suspicious minority of people perceived as regime sympathizers and apologists for being
in favor of engagement and diplomacy to bring North Korea in from the cold and help
make it a more “normal” country and a much better place to live for its population, instead
of favouring methods of coercion, demonization, economic and/or military warfare which
my detractors seem to prefer.
In the case of North Korea, perceptions became reality, and these perceptions were
engineered by a media industry which is largely partisan and sensationalist, seemingly in
desperate need of clicks. As a result of inflexible conditioning by the media, many
consider any form of engagement as helping to “prop up an evil regime”. It’s beyond their
imagination that the nature of a regime can evolve and change. While some forms of
engagement and business operations in North Korea may be seen to support the regime, it,
more importantly, helps to transform it. The confirmation of the potential success of this
approach can be clearly seen in the emergence of China and Vietnam, which was precisely
because of such a strategy and of the opening of business to outsiders.
Advocates of banning tourism, for one, claim it directly supports the regime and enables
its nuclear program. Whereas a smaller portion of the tourism revenue does end up in the
government’s coffers, it more importantly supports tens of thousands of North Korean
jobs, and behind them many more family members and relatives living on the income
from these jobs: drivers, tour guides, hotel workers, restaurant workers, postcard sellers,
families making and selling souvenirs, cookies and so on. It also extends human contact to
the deeply isolated state and its population. And since Westerners and North Koreans have