Despite the technology boom in recent decades that has made governments more transparent and more accountable to its citizens than ever before, the North Korean government manages to keep an iron fist around its people. If anything, digital advancements — picking up phone signals through South Korea or China, a black market for foreign DVDs — make the tyrannical government even more dangerous and unpredictable.
Therefore, fleeing deserters have had to come up with unusual tactics to gain a North Korean soldier’s blind eye. And those outside the borders now use atypical strategies to circumvent the isolated regime in order to reveal the outside world and give hope to North Korea's oppressed people.
Here are two unorthodox but effective symbols and devices of liberation slowly percolating into North Korean society.
Sleeping pills and suicide pills are packing essentials for North Korean runaways.
The sleeping pills, known as “survival pills,” are especially pertinent for parents who flee with their families. As they often travel at nighttime, crying babies and stirring children could jeopardize the entire fleeing party. To ensure safety, prevent detection, and avoid a lifetime of hard labor, traveling brokers who assist defectors give scores of sleeping pills to parents who forget to pack them.
As New Focus International, an independent news site run by former North Korean citizens, writes, “There is an old Korean saying that ‘the cry of a child is life for a family.’ Yet for North Korean defectors…the cry of a child is death for the family.”
The suicide pill is usually rat poison, and its premeditated purposes come into play if defectors are caught. North Koreans know that death is better than the torture and punishment that would await their treasonous act. However, their suicide would also serve another function — a political statement against the state. Suicide is considered a subversive political act against the government, and they would rather spend their last moments in protest than a hardened lifetime in Pyongyang’s destitution.
Fundamentally, Choco Pies are marshmallow-filled chocolate-covered confectioneries, mass-produced by South Korea’s Orion Confectionery factory.
Leading experts of North Korea affairs, however, herald Choco Pies as “an important mind-changing instrument.” Pyongyang officials fearfully attribute the spread of capitalist ideas to Choco Pies. Defectors living in South Korea release balloons aimed at the North filled with anti-Pyongyang fliers, CDs, and — what else — Choco Pies.
What makes these palm-sized sugary snacks so frighteningly revolutionary?
Before North Korea pulled its workers out in April, citizens from both sides of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) jointly ran the Kaesong Industrial Complex in a cooperative spirit. South Koreans were banned from paying North Korean workers cash bonuses, so in place of monetary reward, South Korean bosses gave their Northern comrades food items like instant noodles, mixed coffee sachets, and Choco Pies.
Only available when smuggled from South Korea, China, or the black market, workers began selling Choco Pies for four times their original price in the North. When Pyongyang evacuated the Kaesong Industrial Complex, one of the main worries pertained to Choco Pies and the inflation that would arise from the sudden shortage.
These sweets eventually became legendary lore of the outer world, and the more Pyongyang tried to outlaw them the more they turned into emblems of South Korean prosperity.
They also represent the unkept promises of the North Korean regime. Pyongyang’s power stems from propaganda against the South (and any countries that support it), as well as from assertions that they can “create a modern, self-sufficient Korean state.”
However, what it boils down to is this: the South has the Choco Pies, and the North doesn’t. For this reason, Choco Pies now symbolize South Korean’s capitalist success regardless of what the state-controlled propaganda has to say, and they only highlight Pyongyang’s snack-deprived failures.
Kim Jong-Un’s dictatorship remains strong and North Korea's people remain impoverished. But with these small tools, North Koreans will either increase their likelihoods of escape or at the very least taste a bit of what freedom is like. Either way, awareness of the culture and successes beyond its borders is gradually seeping into North Korean society — and there is nothing Kim Jong-Un can do to stop it.