The lives of tens of thousands of North Koreans have changed dramatically after fleeing the country and taking refuge in South Korea – many still struggle to find their way and adjust to lifestyles in a radical society different from the one they left behind, while others cope. Modern media – social networks, Youtube and entertainment, use things that are still “alien” to North Korean society to create their future. North Korean defectors who have become successful YouTubers and influencers write that they want to reunite the country torn in two by their success. CNN.
For Kang Na-ra, when she was growing up in North Korea, the Internet was a foreign, almost alien concept. Even the privileged few who are allowed to own phones in North Korea can access the highly-restricted intranet that operates only inside the country. Youtube, Instagram and Google are completely foreign concepts to North Koreans.
Today, however, Kang is a well-known YouTuber with over 350,000 subscribers to her channel. His most popular videos have received millions of views. His Instagram account, which has more than 130,000 followers, is sponsored with advertisements from big brands like Chanel or Puma.
After escaping the Kim regime and reaching South Korea, Kang was one of a number of North Korean defectors who unexpectedly made careers as media influencers and YouTubers.
Dozens of other North Koreans have managed to pursue similar lives over the past decade, and their videos offer a rare window into life in the strange “separate kingdom” of the planet’s most closed country — the food North Koreans eat, the language they speak and their daily routine.
Some channels focus more on political content and explore relations between North Korea and other countries, while others follow the classic formula and tackle the world of pop culture and entertainment.
For many of these influencers who fled from one of the world’s most isolated and impoverished countries to one of the most technologically advanced and digitally connected countries, the profession is not as unusual as it sounds.
North Korean “defectors” and experts say these online platforms offer not only a fast track to financial independence, but also a sense of freedom and agency as these people try to integrate into a world they’ve never known.
Path to freedom
North Korean “defectors” are not a large population, and the phenomenon is fairly recent — North Koreans began leaving the country in the past 20 years, most of them across the long border that North Korea maintains with China, they say. Sokeel Park, South Korea director of Liberty International.
Since 1998, more than 33,000 North Koreans have defected to the South, according to the Unification Ministry in Seoul. The number peaked in 2009 when 2,914 North Koreans arrived in the South.
Kang, now 25, is one of the many “underdogs” who have made the journey – a dangerous and dangerous one. North Koreans who escape are likely to be smuggled into China or captured and sent back to the North, where those caught are tortured, imprisoned or executed.
Kang fled to South Korea in 2014 to reunite with his mother, who had fled before, when he was still young.
It was hard at first—like many, Kang went through periods of loneliness, financial pressures, and adjusting to culture shock. South Korea’s highly competitive job market is even harsher on “survivors,” who must also accommodate capitalist society, but also the hostility of some South Koreans.
Data up to 2020 show that 9.4% of North Koreans in South Korea are unemployed, compared to 4% of the total population.
For Kang, the turning point was when he received counseling and went to school with other North Koreans. But her life took an “interesting” turn when she appeared on a South Korean TV show.
The success of North Korean YouTubers
In the 2010s, a general fascination with North Koreans in South Korean society led to a new type of television – “dissector TV”, where North Korean defectors are invited to share their experiences.
Some of the most popular shows are 2011’s “I’m Coming to Kiss You” or 2015’s “Club Moranbong”. Kang appeared in both, and it was around this time that he discovered his passion for YouTube. and fashion.
In 2017, she already had her own channel, where she tried to grow her fame and present her career to those who liked her on TV.
Her YouTube videos explore the big differences between the two Koreas in a funny and open style, sometimes talking about differences in beauty standards — “In North Korea, having big breasts is not attractive” — she recalls, jokingly, in one of the clips. She was surprised when she discovered push-up bras and silicone implants in South Korea.
In other clips, Kang answers common questions about what fugitives bring — salt for good luck, a family photo for sentimentality and rat poison. Who gets caught or has that “you know” I’m going to die” moment.
Over time, his channel became so popular that he received representation from three management companies, hired three producers and began attracting large companies for Instagram ads.
“Now I have a stable and secure source of income. I can buy whatever I want, eat what I want and rest when I want,” he says.
This successful model, used by other North Korean YouTubers in South Korea, such as Kang Eun-jung with over 177,000 subscribers, Jun Hyo with over 270,000 or Park Su-hyang with 45,000, has inspired many to join Youtube.
Part of their success is attributed to the entrepreneurial spirit they developed, says Liberty in Sokeel Park, North Korea.
“One factor is that you’re in control, you’re not taking orders from a South Korean boss, and you don’t have to worry about the culture of working in the country. It’s a struggle, but people have freedom, you’re your own boss and you have your own schedule.”
From TV shows to social media
Dezertor TV has helped boost the popularity of many of these YouTubers, but it has also attracted a lot of controversy in the “survivor” community.
Many see the source as “flawed,” but Park says it’s helpful in giving South Korean audiences more exposure to their fellow citizens in the North. However, many criticize the programs as sensational, exaggerated, outdated and inaccurate.
For example, when North Koreans talk about their past they use animated graphics, detailed scenery and sound effects such as sad music.
However, these programs are entertainment, not documentaries – they are made by South Korean producers, and North Korean guests have no editorial control over them.
Frustrations with the way North Koreans are portrayed in the media and the desire to tell their stories in their own way are important reasons why many “defectors” take the social media route.
Many of them feel that “South Koreans have only a superficial understanding of North Korea” and that “a lot of stereotypes about North Koreans need to be changed.”
From this point of view, Youtube offers “more control – you can put the camera in your apartment or shoot anywhere and talk directly to the audience”.
Reuniting the two Koreas
For many North Korean YouTubers, there’s a slightly bigger goal than achieving financial independence and a successful career — reuniting the two Koreas, especially when political relations between the two countries have deteriorated sharply.
Some say these tensions are the key to connecting Koreans from both countries.
“I think mediating North Korea’s plight through YouTube will help my fellow citizens in the country,” said Kang Eun-jung, 35, who defected to the South in 2008 and started her YouTuber career in 2019.
For her, YouTube is a way to remember who she is and where she comes from, but also to educate others about the experiences of the “lesser.”
“If the two Koreas unify, I would like to interview many people from North Korea,” he added.
However, there is a big problem with this – the audience interested in such content is aging and disappearing – “the generation that still remembers the time when North and South were one country is starting to disappear”.
Part of the problem is that many young South Koreans know nothing about their fellow countrymen beyond the DMZ, and this may be true. Instead, South Koreans are constantly “bombarded” with frightening news about the security situation, political rhetoric and military threats.
As a result, Park says, “young South Koreans know Americans or Japanese better than their North Korean counterparts.”
“If we can resume human-to-human interaction, understanding and empathy, and YouTube channels help with that, that would be great,” he added.
Author: Adrian Dumitru
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