Even the few privileged compatriots who were allowed to use smartphones could only access a tightly restricted domestic intranet. YouTube, Instagram, and Google were completely foreign concepts.
She is one of a growing number of North Korean defectors who have forged unlikely careers as YouTubers and social media influencers after fleeing to South Korea.
Dozens of people have followed a similar path over the past decade. Their videos and accounts offer a rare glimpse into life in the Hermit Kingdom, including the food North Koreans eat, the slang they use, and everyday life.
Some channels offer more political content that explores North Korea’s relationship with other countries. Others are rich and dive into the world of pop culture and entertainment.
But for many of these influencers who fled from one of the world’s most isolated and poverty-stricken countries in search of one of the most technologically advanced and digitally connected nations, this career path is It’s not as weird as it looks.
According to North Korean defectors and experts, these online platforms not only offer a path to financial independence, but also provide a sense of agency and self-expression by assimilating into a difficult new world.
road to freedom
North Korean defectors are a relatively recent phenomenon. They began entering South Korea in “significant numbers” over the past 20 years, but most fled across the long border between North Korea and China, said a South Korean representative for the North Korean international nonprofit Liberty. One Sokheer Pak said.
According to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, more than 33,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since 1998, with the number peaking at 2,914 in 2009.
Kang fled to South Korea in 2014 as a teenager to join his mother, who was already in exile.
According to the Ministry of Unification, as of 2020, 9.4% of North Korean defectors are unemployed, compared to 4% of the general population.
The turning point for Kang came when she began counseling and enrolled in a school with other North Korean defectors. But it wasn’t until she appeared on a Korean TV show that her life really “became interesting,” she said.
In the 2010s, public interest in North Korea grew, spawning a new genre of television called “North Korean defector TV.” In this genre, defectors were invited to share their experiences.
Some of the most famous shows include ‘On the Way to See You’, which first aired in 2011, and ‘The Moranbong Club’, which aired in 2015.
Kang appeared in both. It was around this time that she first turned to her YouTube, where she was particularly drawn to her videos on makeup, beauty and fashion.
By 2017, she had created her own channel and used her growing fame to “document my daily life for those who like me on TV shows.”
Many of her YouTube videos explore the differences between the two Koreas in a light-hearted conversational style, including contrasting beauty norms. “In North Korea, big breasts aren’t good!” she laughs in one of her videos, recalling her surprise when she discovered padded bras and breast implants in the South.
Other videos answer common questions about escaping from North Korea, such as what defectors take with them (salt for good luck, family photos for peace of mind, rat poison if caught, etc.) I’m here. “)
Eventually, the channel became so popular that she acquired representation from three management agencies, hired a video producer, and began engaging clients with sponsored Instagram content.
“I have a steady stream of income now,” she said. “Buy what you like, eat it, and rest when you like.”
This model of success is mirrored by other defector YouTubers, such as Kang Eun-jung, who has over 177,000 subscribers. Jun Heo had over 270,000 before removing the channel this year. 45,000 Park Su-Hyang has inspired many to join him on YouTube.
Part of their success is that the defectors are “very entrepreneurial,” according to North Korea’s Liberty’s Sokheer Pak.
“I think the factors are that you are in control, that you are not being ordered by your Korean boss, and that you have to emphasize the Korean work culture.
“It may be a struggle, but people have agency. You are your own boss and your own schedule.”
Stories on their own terms
Defector TV may have helped boost the popularity of some of these influencers — However, it also caused controversy among the North Korean defector community.
Some people see it as “imperfect”, but it helps the South Korean public give more exposure to their North Korean peers. , has been criticized for being exaggerated, outdated and inaccurate.
For example, shows often use cartoon graphics, elaborate background sets, and sound effects. Such as the sad music that North Korean defectors hear when they remember the past.
After all, these were entertainment programs, not documentaries, and “(the programs) were produced by Korean TV producers and writers, and obviously (the defectors) did not have the editorial rights.” No,” he added.
One of the main reasons many defectors turn to social media is their frustration with how they are represented in mainstream media and their desire to tell their stories in their own words. is.
Many North Korean defectors feel that South Koreans either have a very shallow understanding of North Korea or have certain stereotypes about the North Korean people that should be challenged.
On YouTube, “you have a very different level of control and agency. You can just put a camera in your apartment or shooting location and you can speak directly to your audience.”
build a bridge between Korea
This is a daunting task, especially as relations have deteriorated in recent years due to disagreements over North Korea’s weapons tests and joint military exercises with the United States in the south.
However, some say that these tensions are why it is so important to humanize Koreans and bring them together from each side.
For her, YouTube is a way to “keep reminding yourself of your identity, who you are and where you came from”, and also a way to teach people about the experiences of defectors.
“If the two Koreas become one, I would like to interview many people in North Korea,” she added.
Still, there are problems for those looking to bridge the gap. The audience is aging, perhaps because the content is most appealing to the generation that survived the Korean War and its aftermath in the 1950s.
“The generation that remembers North and South Korea as one country is fading away.
That makes building bridges among the younger generation more urgent.
Kang Eun-jung’s viewers are mostly in their 50s and above, while Kang Na-ra’s viewers are mostly in their 30s, which is a relatively older age group in the world of social media.
Part of the problem is that young South Koreans know little about their compatriots on the other side of the DMZ, and are instead exposed to ominous news headlines about the security situation, political rhetoric, and military aggression. It may be that
As a result, Mr. Park said, “South Korean youth know Americans better than North Koreans. They know Japanese better than North Koreans. I know very well,” he said.
“So being able to resume human contact, understanding and empathy in some way is great if North Koreans are creating their own YouTube channels.”
For Kang Nara, who has many friends in North Korea and has considered returning to the oppressive regime, the distance feels personal.
“We want more young people to be interested in unification and to be interested in North Korea, so we want to increase our teens and 20s subscribers,” she said.
“I think it will increase the chances of them returning to their hometowns before they die. If more young people want the unification of North and South Korea, it might come true.”