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North Korean Defector Describes the Shock of Adjusting to a Society With Advanced Technology

The “internet room” at Pyongyang’s international airport in 2015, which at the time reportedly didn’t have access to the internet (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)
The “internet room” at Pyongyang’s international airport in 2015, which at the time reportedly didn’t have access to the internet (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating new video about the struggles that many North Koreans go through when they defect to the South. Many of the hurdles are technological. As just one example, when North Koreans first encounter ATMs they sometimes believe that there’s a person inside the machine because the ATM “talks.”


The video from the Wall Street Journal:


The video really demonstrates how shocking it can be to go from a country where so much money is currently being poured into the machines of war to a country like South Korea where technologies like talking ATMs and tablet computers are abundant.

Some of the video speaks to just how harsh the realities of living in a capitalist society can be. Despite the corruption of the North Korean central bank, North Koreans expect government to provide restitution when scams occur.

Recently about 200 North Korean defectors were taken in by a scam that targeted them because of their naivety about financial norms in South Korea. All together, the defectors were part of a group that lost about $14 million. One of the defectors returned to North Korea and went on state TV to declare that “there are as many scams in South Korea as there is water in the river.”

Looking to the future, experts on the region are focusing on what happens under Korean unification, when North Korea inevitably collapses either through military intervention from the United States or under the weight of crushing poverty currently endured by its people.


Teaching North Koreans about not only the strange aspects of modern technology (like talking ATMs) could be the least of their worries when you’ve got a world of scammers looking to make a buck off North Korean ignorance of just how corrupt modern capitalist financial systems can be.

[Wall Street Journal]


Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog

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Suki Kims memoir investigative book on North Korea, Without You There Is No Us touched on this. She went undercover as a teacher in a North Korean University, and it was really amazing how little the students (who were, for the most part, the sons of well-off, politically connected North Korean families) were allowed access to technology. She tells the story of wanting to show one of the Harry Potter movies (which she had to fight the other, ultra-religious teachers over) and how eager the students were to get to see a Western movie for the first time.

It was also amazing how careful she was, writing her notes on a computer, saving them to a flash drive she carried with her all the time, and then deleting them off the computer. It was also amazing how stupid some of the other teachers were (one guy searched all his fellow teachers names on the computer the North Koreans had given them).

Barbara Demick in her book, Nothing to Envy, also talks about how, as the population of South Koreans that remember life before the separation grow older there is a decline in interest in reunification plans. Most South Koreans can’t remember a time when they were one country, and (according to Demick) a lot of them view having to eventually help the North re-acclimate as more of a burden than anything.

(She also tells the heart-rending story of a North Korean doctor who defected via China. She got over the border and was walking through a village at night when she found a huge bowl of food by someone’s gate. She said she broke down crying when she realized the food- which was more than she had seen in a long time- had been put out for the family dog.)