The Prospects of Civil Society and Domestic Change in North Korea

Dr. Andrew Yeo

The possibility of human rights change, justice, and accountability via a North Korea civil society appear limited at best. In fact, given the repressive, totalitarian nature of the North Korean state, most would argue that a North Korean civil society remains non-existent. In contrast to such views supported by the literature on authoritarian politics, this paper adopts a bottom-up, political economic perspective of civil society formation to offer an alternative account of North Korean politics and the potential for domestic change. Based on defectors’ accounts, the “demand” side of civil societal formation focuses on the motives, incentives, and opportunities for ordinary North Koreans to organize apart from the state, whether through informal markets or through some other avenue of association. The “supply” side includes the extent to which the flow of outside information or regular interactions with foreigners through humanitarian, development, and other people-to-people exchanges might encourage a nascent civil society in closed regimes such as North Korea. In particular, if market exchanges help build social networks outside of government control, or if interaction with foreign actors and other North Koreans at the local level helps foster social capital, one might be able to point to the early trappings of civil society in North Korea. This may bode well for justice and accountability in a future transitional or post-unification setting. However, if the North Korean regime is able to sufficiently regulate and co-opt markets, justifying the rise of a market economy within the framework of its state ideology, then the prospects for change via civil society will remain much more distant.