Even the privileged few of his compatriots who were allowed to use smartphones could only access the country’s tightly restricted intranet. YouTube, Instagram and Google were entirely foreign concepts.
She is one of a growing number of North Korean defectors who, after escaping to South Korea, have gone on to seemingly unlikely careers as YouTubers and social media influencers.
Dozens of people have followed a similar path over the past decade, their videos and stories providing a rare insight into life in the hermit kingdom – the food North Koreans eat, the slang they use, their daily routines.
Some channels offer more political content, exploring North Korea’s relations with other countries; others delve into the rich and – for those who have just defected, entirely new – worlds of pop culture and entertainment.
But for many of these influencers, who fled one of the most isolated and poorest countries in the world for one of the most technologically advanced and digitally connected countries, this career path is not as strange as it seems.
Defectors and pundits say these online platforms not only provide a path to financial independence, but also a sense of agency and self-representation as they assimilate into a daunting new world.
Path to freedom
Defectors are a relatively recent phenomenon; they have started entering South Korea “in large numbers” over the past 20 years, most fleeing North Korea’s long border with China, said Sokeel Park, South Korea’s country director for the international non-profit organization Liberty in North Korea.
Since 1998, more than 33,000 people have defected from North Korea to South Korea, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, with the number peaking at 2,914 in 2009.
Kang fled south in 2014 as a teenager, joining his mother who had previously defected.
In 2020, 9.4% of defectors were unemployed, compared to 4% of the general population, according to the Unification Ministry.
For Kang, a turning point came when she started receiving counseling and joined a school with other defectors. But it wasn’t until she appeared on a South Korean TV show that life really “got interesting”, she said.
In the 2010s, growing public fascination with North Koreans gave rise to a new genre of television known as “defector TV”, in which defectors were invited to share their experiences.
Some of the best-known shows include “Now On My Way To Meet You,” which first aired in 2011, and “Moranbong Club,” which aired in 2015.
Kang appeared on both – and it was around this time that she first laid eyes on YouTube, where she was particularly drawn to videos about makeup, beauty and fashion.
By 2017, she had created her own channel, capitalizing on her growing fame and “recording my daily life for the people who liked me on TV shows”.
Many of her YouTube videos explore the differences between the two Koreas in a cheerful and conversational style, such as contrasting beauty standards. “In North Korea, if you have big breasts, it’s considered bad!” she laughs in a video, recalling her surprise to discover padded bras and breast implants in the South.
Other videos answer common questions about fleeing North Korea, such as what defectors bring with them (salt for luck, a family photo for comfort, and rat poison for in case they get caught – for “when you know you’re going to die”.”)
Eventually, the channel became so popular that it gained representation from three management agencies, hired video producers, and began attracting clients for sponsored Instagram content.
“I have a steady stream of income now,” she said. “I can buy and eat whatever I want, and I can rest when I want.”
This model of success – echoed by other defector YouTubers, such as Kang Eun-jung, with over 177,000 subscribers; Jun Heo, with more than 270,000 before pulling his channel this year; and Park Su-Hyang, with 45,000, inspired many more to join YouTube.
Part of their success, according to Sokeel Park, of Liberty in North Korea, is that the defectors “are pretty enterprising”.
“I think one of the factors to that is that you’re in control, you’re not bossed around by a South Korean boss, and you have to care about a South Korean work culture,” he said. he declared.
“It may be difficult, but people have agency…You are your own boss, on your own schedule.”
Stories in their own way
Defector TV may have helped boost the popularity of some of these influencers – but it also sparked controversy among the defector community.
Some see it as “flawed” but helpful in giving South Korean audiences greater exposure to their northern peers, Park said. But many others criticize talk shows as sensationalized, exaggerated, outdated and inaccurate.
For example, the shows often use cartoon graphics, elaborate backgrounds, and sound effects — like eerie music that plays as defectors reminisce about their pasts.
Ultimately, these are entertainment shows, not documentaries, Park said, adding, “(The shows are) made by South Korean television producers and writers…obviously (the defectors) didn’t of editorial control.”
This frustration with how North Koreans are portrayed in mainstream media and their desire to tell their stories on their own terms is one of the main reasons so many defectors have taken to social media.
Many defectors feel “that South Koreans have only a very superficial understanding of North Korea, or that they have certain stereotypes about North Koreans that should be challenged,” Park said.
YouTube allows “a very different level of control and agency, to be able to just set up a camera in your apartment or wherever you might be filming, and just speak directly to an audience.”
Building Bridges Between Koreas
It’s a daunting task, especially in recent years when relations have soured over disagreements over northern weapons testing and joint southern military exercises with the United States.
But some say these tensions are exactly why it’s important to humanize and connect Koreans on either side.
For her, YouTube is a way to “continue to remind myself of my identity, who I am and where I come from” – as well as to teach people about the experiences of defectors.
“If the two Koreas unite, I want to interview a lot of people in North Korea,” she added.
Still, there’s a problem for those hoping to bridge the gap: their audiences are aging, perhaps because their content appeals most to the generation that lived through the Korean War of the 1950s and its aftermath.
“The generation that remembers North Korea and South Korea as one country is dying out,” Park said.
This makes it more urgent to build bridges between the younger generation.
Most of Kang Eun-jung’s viewers are in their 50s or older, while Kang Na-ra’s are mostly in their 30s — relatively high age brackets in the social media world.
Part of the problem may be that young South Koreans know next to nothing about their peers on the other side of the DMZ, instead being bombarded with disturbing headlines about the security situation, political rhetoric and military saber blows.
As a result, Park said, “young South Koreans know Americans better than North Koreans. They know Japanese better than North Koreans, they know Chinese (better than North Koreans).”
“So to be able to regain some form of contact and understanding and empathy between people – if it’s North Koreans creating their own YouTube channels – then that’s great.”
For Kang Na-ra, who left many friends in North Korea and even once considered returning to the repressive regime, this distance seems personal.
“I want to have more teenagers (subscribers) and people in their twenties because I want more young people to care about unification and be interested in North Korea,” she said. .
“Wouldn’t that increase the possibility of me returning to my hometown before I die? If more young people want the unification of the Koreas, couldn’t that come true?”