CIVICUS speaks about activism in the closed civic space of North Korea with Bada Nam, Secretary General of People for Successful Corean Reunification (PSCORE).
Founded in 2006 and based in South Korea, PSCORE is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that works to improve human rights in North Korea, assist North Korean escapees settling in South Korea and address barriers to reunification of the two Koreas.
Is there anything resembling civil society in North Korea?
North Korea values organisational activities, requiring every citizen to participate simultaneously in several groups such as the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea, North Korea’s Socialist Women’s Union and the Socialist Patriotic Youth League. All of them are government-organised and exert control over people rather than encourage critical thinking. Mentioning civic organisations from the outside world is strictly forbidden.
Congregating and engaging in activism in any way critical to the regime is a serious criminal offence, with punishments that can extend to the death penalty. As a result, any such activity must be covert, and it’s difficult to obtain accurate information on the existence of an underground civil society.
North Korea is a surveillance state, where people are always cautious about what they say, even to close friends and family members. It’s impossible to gather colleagues and engage in civic activities because everyone is made to monitor each other and failure to report treasonous crimes to the authorities would also result in severe punishment. Public criticism sessions and public executions are also examples of how the regime strikes fear into the population.
People are deterred from opposing the government not only because of the extreme punishment they would face but also due to North Korea’s policy of guilt by association, which puts their close relatives at risk. The ‘Songbun’ class system classifies people according to their political loyalties, as ‘loyal’, ‘wavering’ or ‘hostile’, and family members may be demoted in this classification system, affecting their life opportunities, including career options and access to food rations. In serious cases, entire families may be sent to political camps and die from forced labour or starvation. Therefore, North Koreans don’t dare imagine opposing the government.
Have there been any recent changes in the ways the North Korean regime responds to dissent?
The North Korean government has always responded to dissent in an extreme manner. However, since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011, the surveillance and security system has increased dramatically, making it nearly impossible to escape from North Korea. Extra security measures are in place along the borders and a shoot-to-kill policy is enforced against those trying to escape. The situation was exacerbated further during the COVID-19 pandemic when the China-North Korea border was closed, both halting trade and also impeding the flow of defectors.
Information poses the greatest threat to the North Korean regime, especially due to the influence of the recent ‘Korean wave’ that has made South Korean popular culture increasingly prevalent. Most people in North Korea have been exposed to South Korean dramas and music, leading some to adopt South Korean manner of speech and fashion style. In response, the government has intensified monitoring, enacted strict laws and imposed severe punishments for consuming or distributing foreign media. The Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Act, enacted in January 2023, explicitly prohibits the use of foreign languages and specifically bans South Korean terms such as ‘oppa’, which translates as ‘older brother’ and is used as a form of endearment for a boyfriend.
How do people manage to escape North Korea?
Most North Koreans escape across the border with China, often with the help of a broker. Brokers reach out to wealthy families in North Korea or help those who have escaped to China get to South Korea. Defectors in South Korea sometimes contact a broker to help other family members flee.
China has a policy of forced repatriation for North Korean refugees, and its advanced surveillance system makes it extremely difficult to travel in China undetected. If apprehended and returned to North Korea, defectors and their families face severe punishment.
Most North Korean refugees must travel through several countries before reaching safety. From China, they might flee to Mongolia and Southeast Asian countries such as Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Many North Koreans end up seeking asylum in Thailand, where the government assists them and helps organise their journey to South Korea.
What help do escapees receive?
The assistance available to North Korean refugees depends on the laws and diplomatic relations of countries with North and South Korea. Civil society, including PSCORE, helps North Korean defectors settle in South Korea by teaching essential life skills. Thanks to our volunteer teachers, we focus on providing educational support, including English lessons and vocational workshops. In the past, we also assisted escapees in reaching South Korea but, unfortunately, this became impossible due to China’s growing securitisation and the impact of COVID-19.
Once in South Korea, North Koreans must undergo a 12-week training programme at the Hanawon rehabilitation centre, where they learn various skills to adapt to the South Korean lifestyle and have access to medical treatment and mental health services. While the South Korean government has implemented programmes to assist refugees, the process of fully integrating into South Korean society is still difficult for people who have previously lived under the totalitarian regime. Psychological trauma from refugees’ journey to freedom may have lasting effects on their lives.
How do escapees work to raise awareness and advocate for change in North Korea?
There are many CSOs, mainly based in South Korea, that support North Koreans inside the country and abroad. Some organisations send messages, information, K-dramas and K-pop to North Korea using USB sticks. South Korean news outlets, such as Daily NK and NK News, have sources in North Korea that provide insights into the current situation. PSCORE and other North Korean human rights groups conduct interviews with defectors and publish reports based on their testimonies.
Our primary activities involve organising public awareness campaigns through seminars and events. We also share short catchy videos on various North Korea-related topics via our social media channels. Our large international team of interns plays a crucial role in advocacy by translating our social media content into various languages. This makes our mission and content visible to the rest of the world.
PSCORE was granted special consultative status with the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2012, facilitating our engagement with the international community. We hold an annual side event at the UN Human Rights Council to share the latest information on North Korea’s human rights situation. We leverage international pressure to try to bring about change.
What further international support do diaspora activists need?
The topic of North Korean human rights is seen as a very political issue in South Korea. This means that CSOs are affected by each change of government, as policies toward North Korea shift with every administration. While PSCORE’s objective is centred on achieving peace and improving human rights in North Korea, we receive limited support compared to other CSOs due to the interpretation of our activities as politically charged, even though PSCORE is a non-partisan and non-religious CSO. Increased media exposure could help us secure more funding.
Insufficient funding is a common challenge for North Korean human rights organisations. It hinders the potential to raise awareness and support refugees in South Korea. North Korean activists need more platforms to amplify their voices and continue advocating for change. Still, we hope that more donations will come as the international community becomes more interested in the cause of human rights in North Korea.
Civic space in North Korea is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.