Is the Spirit of Atlas Shrugged Alive Among Millennials in North Korea?

Portraits of Kim il-Sung at the Tate Modern, London

by OYW Ambassador James Paek

It's strange to think of people feeling both oppressed and free at the same time. Yet it's exactly this unlikely combination of sentiments that drives a new generation of North Koreans: they're constrained by their nation’s political system, yet unflappable in their drive to overcome the limitations they face.

After exploring the backstory of the millennials of North Korea, it's tempting to ask, “Is the spirit of Atlas Shrugged alive among millennials in North Korea?”

In short, today's North Koreans are entirely different from their parents' generation. And because of this, the long journey of defecting—the decision, the preparation, and the actual journey—is different, too. And somewhere along the way, it might be argued, they've also picked up the torch for the spirit of Atlas Shrugged. 

The actions of these young North Koreans reflect - knowingly or unknowingly - Rand’s objectivism: reject society's norms and culture as determining factors on the nature of reality. Facts rule, and if people want to get something done, they must embrace reality and independent thinking. That's precisely what today's North Korean millennials are doing: They're not hoping. They're not praying. They're not sitting back and wishing. They're chasing what Rand admirers call unlimited ambition. They're working the black market and setting their sights on even greater markets in the outside world...and defecting is how they will achieve those goals.

Survival outside the system

North Korea’s millennials came of age in the aftermath of the harrowing famine of the 1990s. Out of necessity, their parents formed a new economic system that grew out of bartering, foreign currency, and the struggle to survive. As these 90s kids watched their parents develop their entrepreneurial sides, they learned.

Suddenly facing a world without rations, North Koreans in the 1990s turned to more ancient forms of survival: bartering for whatever food they could scrap together in marketplaces. Sometimes they traded household items for fruit. Sometimes they bought small impulse items and sold them for a profit in the market. And as the country's currency became severely devalued, foreign currency became the preferred method of trade.

Their children learned that the way to survive was to break the rules and hustle any way they could. But far from merely existing on the disreputable margins of mainstream society and being barely tolerated, those who are running the ropes in this so-called 'black market' are the winners...and the market is new normal for North Koreans.

Is there any other group that demonstrates this spirit of Atlas Shrugged better than our North Korean millennials? They are, after all, forsaking the socialist state of their country and choosing happiness instead. They're demonstrating power, not weakness, and a sort of 'can-do' mentality embodied in the entrepreneurial characters of Rand’s flagship book.

Independent thinking and creating value both at work here. It's also easy to draw a connection between Rand's 'maker mentality' and our entrepreneurs who've created value amidst the marketplace disaster of the North Korean economy. Because of their black market activities, consumers are able to procure more of what they want and what they need.

At the same time, the millennium brought about huge steps forward in technology. Before flash drives and the Internet, North Koreans had very few glimpses of what life was like in other countries.

But this new generation was brought up on an ever-increasing diet of media from beyond their borders, especially South Korea and the United States. What they saw formed their dreams, their hopes, and their primary motivation for defecting. Desire, it turns out, is a stronger motivator than oppression when it comes to risking your neck and deciding to leave your country for a new life. It means taking a long-term view. 

The role of the North Korean black market

Before the famine, the parents of today's younger North Koreans received rations from their government. So, though the government was oppressive and dysfunctional, it felt like there were some benefits trickling down to ordinary citizens.

But the rations stopped coming, and today's younger generation has no recollection of them. These post-famine kids grew up never looking to government for handouts, help, or guidance.

Then what was their mantra, their credo, the one unifying factor that defines them today? Creating value.

And ironically, that’s through capitalism. They may not know it, but this new breed of North Korean entrepreneurs are keeping alive the spirit of Atlas Shrugged and demonstrating principles of Objectivism. This is pure capitalism in its most distilled form: completely laissez-faire, unencumbered by the hand of government and guided by cold, hard reality.

The free-market activities that evolved out of necessity became the underlying blueprint for a new generation of savvy, grassroots entrepreneurs. It's out of this new market culture that a new breed of defectors was born.

What’s different about today’s defectors

Most of us are familiar with what happened when the Soviet Union crumbled—officially in 1991. Former Soviet republics were left to fend for themselves, economically, politically, and socially.

North Korea was hit particularly hard.

The early 1990s was one of the most meagre times ever seen in North Korea. With only two real allies in the world (China and the Soviet Union), losing any support at all was catastrophic. The new Russia, under Boris Yeltsin, was unfriendly to the North Korean regime and financial support was cut off.

Without Soviet support, and with a government that failed to respond quickly enough, North Korea marched head-on into yet another crushing series of events: disastrous flooding and droughts. North Koreans were fully unprepared for what was to come: the famine that became known as ‘The March of Suffering’ or the Arduous March (konanŭi haenggun). 

Nutritional suffering aside, North Koreans also suffered psychological oppression at the time. A state campaign forbade anyone to use the words famine or hunger for fear it would imply failure on the government's part.

The generation that lived through the famine—parents of today's millennials —are irrevocably scarred by what has become generally accepted as one of the worst humanitarian crises of the decade. 

In a 1964 Playboy interview, Ayn Rand remarked:

"...man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself."

North Koreans were forever changed by these events, but the generation that came of age after the 1990's is different, specifically in how their experience and worldview aligns with Ayn Rand’s objectivism. In particular, their unlimited ambition is reflected in North Korea's black market, all right, but there's more to this scenario that conjures the essence of Atlas Shrugged. It's about character; it's about people, after all, and the individual choices they make in the pursuit of their own happiness, whether that’s North Korea or the world over.