Truth and Human Rights in North Korea (THiNK) held its annual conference on March 17 to discuss the lives of individuals in North Korea, shifting the focus from nuclear tension and foreign relational issues. The conference focused on themes such as technology, family, and gender and invited speakers to lead an interactive dialogue about the pertaining topics.
The conference opened with a keynote speaker, Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of HRNK, who talked about the shift in the lives of North Koreans after the great famine in the late 1990s. He emphasized that recognizing this shift is important to implement the most efficient strategies to address human rights issues in North Korea. Prior to the famine, North Koreans depended on public distribution, a method in which the government demonetized the economy and centralized control over basic life necessities. After the famine, the government no longer had the stock of supplies to distribute, so people started to sell goods from their households and created black markets to barter. Through these markets, North Koreans gained access to South Korean popular culture called Hallyu, movies, and music. According to Scarlatoiu, there are still limited opportunities for North Korean civilians to sustain themselves under a totalitarian government, as the average income of a typical industrial job is only 60 cents a month. Yet, Scarlatoiu reiterated that the social structure in North Korea was shifting towards a hybrid system and those interested in tackling human rights issues in North Korea should take advantage of the trust that has developed amongst the people who trade and the internal organization of people based on common interest.
On the similar topic of understanding that life in North Korea was shifting to a new system, Nat Kretchun, the associate director at InterMedia discussed how the North Korean government started implementing a more intricate system of information control. After the famine, there was a breakdown in traditional security, more horizontal connection between the citizens, and information circulation on South Korean entertainment. Since there has been more digitization and increasing saturation of devices such as USBs and DVD players that would be more difficult to control one by one, the North Korean government implemented a remote surveillance network. No communication between locals and international communities is allowed, and all devices are on a nationally-operating interface that requires a national signature for any apps or files to load. According to Kretchun, the North Korean government has more extensive control over the emerging technology, and censorship is becoming growingly difficult to combat.
“Information access as an end should be part of the human rights efforts as this can be strategically empower the North Korean citizens and help them internally organize,” said Kretchun. He added that the government advantage over technology must be eroded, and although efforts to do so is difficult, an ongoing effort should be catalyzed. Kretchun further answered in the following Q&A session that those who want to tackle human rights issues in North Korea must understand the new design of control within the country, understand what opportunities present themselves, and ensure that the solutions to disseminate more information are sustainable so that North Korean citizens are increasingly empowered.
In the following section of the conference, Professor Min Koo Choi from Georgetown University talked about gender and family, followed by Jinhye Jo, president and founder of NKinUSA, who discussed on the topic of life in and out of North Korea as a North Korean defector herself.
The audience then participated in the Game of Life, a simulation designed by the event organizers to gain an insight into the variety of experiences in North Korea.
Conference organization board member Peter Kim said, “I think the conference was successful, for people of various age and ethnic backgrounds participated. It was meaningful since we could listen to experts’ perspective on human rights issues in North Korea…. I hope the audience would have learnt that even at this moment, there are so many innocent people dying under Kim’s regime, and we should do whatever we can to help them.”