New Refugee Testimony from Anna Fifield

November 22, 2017 10:15 AM

Marc Noland and I have always argued that testimony from North Korean refugees—simply letting them tell their stories—speaks volumes more than any analysis outsiders can do (some previous posts on refugee narratives are linked below). Ann Fifield at the Washington Post proves this point with an extraordinary piece of long form journalism entitled simply Life Under Kim Jong Un. The article includes videos—from propaganda pieces to glimpses of the markets—and provides links to the voices of those interviewed embedded in the text. Read it and weep. The core message: Don't be taken in by the smiling public persona of the Great Successor or the gleaming buildings on Ryomyong Street. Life in North Korea could well be getting more oppressive. Yet on the hopeful side, Fifield also documents growing cynicism and an uptick in political motives for getting out.

Fifield's survey covers 25 defectors. All left during the Kim Jong Un era, thus providing a kind of update. Some things are constant, including the fact that money talks. Fifield's subjects not only confirm the vibrancy of the market economy, but also the fact that the state socialist sector continues to wither. One subject reports working on a construction site and not getting paid for six months. A doctor spends most of his energy on his underground activities, which do not even include medical practice. With these developments comes not only illicit activity, such as drug use and smuggling, but also corruption and graft. Particularly striking were two interviewees who independently noted the necessity of paying teachers to assure fair treatment of their kids. Several noted the extortion-racket quality of the state as lower-level officials demand bribes.

Inequality is another inevitable outcome of this marketization process. One respondent identified as "a rich kid" talks about his $400 cellphone and a pair of rollerblades that cost the equivalent of 30 kilos of rice. 

Yet the respondents also document political disillusionment. Because of his youth, several expressed some hopefulness that things would change under the new leadership. However, the jaunty appearance of the young leader is just the flip side of the continuing cult of personality, including instructional sessions on Kim Jong Un. Surveillance, including several references to roving socialist youth squads, repression, and the brutality of the penal system persist. Fifield's subjects report even greater effort on the part of the regime in sealing the border, although the pervasiveness of foreign media use persists. But the most interesting finding of the surveys was a shift in the stated reasons for leaving, from material concerns to broader aspirations for freedom and opportunity. If you are looking for an introduction to the defector's voice, this is a great place to start.

Witness to Transformation Reviews of Defector Memoirs, Testimony, and Interviews

Yeonmi Park, In Order Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom, Part I, Part II

Jang Jin-Sung: Dear Leader

Eunsun Kim: A Thousand Miles to Freedom

On Shin Don-hyuk: Escape from Camp 14; The Case Against--and For--Shin Dong-hyuk; The DPRK on Shin Dong-hyuk

Lucia Jang: Stars Between the Sun and Moon (afterward by Stephan Haggard)

Sandra Fahy: Marching Through Suffering

Yeonmi Park TED Talk: "I Am a North Korean Millenial"

Hyeonseo Lee TED Talk: "My Escape from North Korea"

Joseph Kim TED Talk: "Hunger Is Humiliation"

Green and Epstein on "Now On My Way to Meet You"

Committee on Human Rights in North Korea: Refugee Memoir Blog



Professor Haggard,

I attend Yonsei Graduate School for International Studies and also contribute to a Yonsei publication, the North Korean Review. I heard you speak when you came in September and was fortunate enough to ask you a question during the Q&A session. I enjoy your analysis of North Korea. I read the Korean version of this article and it is pretty fascinating. I work at an NGO in Seoul that funds organizations that support North Koreans in South Korea, and I am completely on your side about the value of listening to defectors. I have been lucky enough to talk to many through this foundation, and am sometimes disappointed at the skepticism displayed by academics when they brush off any first person accounts of North Koreans. Sometimes I think it is a bit insulting to dismiss these heartfelt stories. I feel there is a balance to be found between witness accounts and empirical data. I am happy to find that a scholar of your stature also appreciates the stories of defectors. Thank you for your posts


Nate Kerkhoff, Seoul

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