Why Do North Koreans Defect From their Home Country?

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It’s strange to think of people feeling oppressed and free at the same time. Yet it’s exactly this unlikely combination that drives a new generation of North Koreans. They’re constrained by the political system under which they live, yet unflappable in their urge to overcome the limitations they face.

Surprisingly, that makes these younger North Koreans perfect examples of a fully free society as envisioned by none other than Ayn Rand. Today’s North Koreans are entirely different from their parents’ generation. And because of this, the long process of defecting — the decision, the preparation, the actual journey — is different, too.

To Understand What’s Different About Today’s Generation of Defectors, Look at History

Most of us are familiar with what happened when the Soviet Union crumbled. Former republics were set free to fend for themselves, both economically and politically. The early 1990’s represented some of the hardest times ever in North Korea (Don’t forget its Songbun caste system). With only two real allies in the world (China and the Soviet Union), losing any support was catastrophic. The new Russia, under Boris Yeltsin, was unfriendly toward North Korea and financial support was cut off.

Without Soviet support, and with a government that failed to respond quickly enough, North Korea marched head-on into yet another crushing series of events: disastrous flooding and droughts. North Koreans were fully unprepared for what was to come: the famine that became known as The March of Suffering or the Arduous March (konanŭi haenggun).

Nutritional suffering aside, North Koreans also suffered psychological oppression at the time. A state campaign forbade anyone to use the words famine or hunger for fear it would imply government failure. The generation that lived through the famine — parents of today’s Millennials — are irrevocably scarred by one of the worst humanitarian crises of the decade.

North Koreans were forever changed by these events, but the generation that came of age after the 1990’s is different.

The North Korean Black Market

Before the famine, the parents of today’s younger North Koreans received rations from their government. So even though the government was oppressive and dysfunctional, it felt like there were some benefits trickling down to ordinary citizens.

But rations stopped, and today’s younger generation has no recollection of them. These post-famine kids grew up never looking to government for handouts, help, or guidance.

Then what was their mantra, their credo, the one unifying factor that defines them today?

Ironically, it’s capitalism.

The free-market activities that evolved out of necessity became the underlying blueprint for a new generation of savvy, grassroots entrepreneurs.

It’s out of this new market culture that a new breed of defectors was born.

DVDs, Desire, and Defecting

The years following the famine were the formative years for North Korean millennials. Out of necessity, their parents formed a new economic system that grew out of bartering, foreign currency, and the struggle to survive.

Suddenly facing a world without rations, North Koreans in the 1990’s turned to more ancient forms of survival: bartering for whatever food they could scrap together in marketplaces. Sometimes they traded household items for fruit. Sometimes they bought small impulse items and sold them for a profit in the market. And as the country’s currency became severely devalued, foreign currency became the preferred method of trade.

While those 90’s kids watched their parents develop their entrepreneurial sides, North Korean millennials learned economic freedom.

They learned that the way to survive was to break the rules and hustle any which way they could. At the same time, the Millennium brought about huge steps forward in technology. Before thumb drives and the Internet, North Koreans had very few glimpses of what life was like in other countries.

But this new generation was brought up on an ever-increasing diet of media from outside its borders, especially South Korea and the USA. What they saw formed their dreams, their hopes, and their primary motivation for defecting. Desire, it turns out, is a stronger motivator than oppression when it comes to risking your neck and deciding to leave your country for a new life. Ayn Rand would certainly have approved.

Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and Today’s North Koreans

They may not know it, but this new breed of North Korean entrepreneurs demonstrate a perfect example of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. This is pure capitalism in its most distilled form: completely laissez-faire, unencumbered by the hand of government and guided by cold, hard reality.

That’s North Korea’s black market, alright. Objectivism also rejects society’s norms and culture as determining factors on the nature of reality. Facts rule. If people want to get something done, they must embrace reality. That’s precisely what today’s North Korean millennials are doing. They’re not hoping. They’re not praying. They’re not sitting back and wishing. They’re working the black market. They’re setting their sights on even greater markets in the outside world… and defecting is how they’ll achieve those goals.


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