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North Korea's Millennials Demonstrate Entrepreneurial Spirit


North Korea is one of the world's most isolated countries, but it does have something in common with the U.S. - an obvious generation gap between older people and millennials. In North Korea, millennials are known as the market generation. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, these young adults are bringing something new to the cloistered dictatorship.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: That something new is entrepreneurialism. Millennials in North Korea are called the market generation because they grew up buying and selling things, even if it was often illegal.

JOO YANG: I make liquor. Like, Americans say moonshine.

SHAPIRO: Moonshine?

YANG: Yeah, and - or some candies.

SHAPIRO: Joo Yang started brewing North Korean hooch when she was 13. Today, she's 25 and living in South Korea. I meet her at a food court in Seoul. She says she didn't have to sell things to support her family.

YANG: No. My father say, stop doing that (laughter) you have to study. But I love study, so I went to school every day and also doing some business because it was fun, not because I'm hungry.

SHAPIRO: You have the entrepreneurial spirit.

YANG: (Laughter) Yes.

SHAPIRO: That spirit runs throughout this generation, says Sokeel Park. He works for a nonprofit organization called LiNK that helps North Korean defectors. He connected us with the North Koreans in this story.

SOKEEL PARK: I would refer to them as native capitalists. You know, they didn't really experience socialism in its economic form at any point. They grew up and only remember capitalism. And so this profit-driven, you know, materialism, individualism, this is their first nature.

SHAPIRO: When North Korean millennials were children in the 1990s, a famine was crushing the country. The government relaxed border restrictions so people wouldn't starve, and people got creative. While legitimate markets popped up all over, an underground economy emerged, too. Kim Danbi grew up near North Korea's border with China. Today, sitting in her South Korean apartment, surrounded by puppies and Mickey Mouse dolls, you would never guess that she was a teenage smuggling kingpin.

KIM DANBI: (Through interpreter) It helped that I was a kid because people couldn't imagine that I would bring in goods this size and amount. And I also made sure that people around me were covered properly. I bribed them properly and made them into my own people. They have my back.

SHAPIRO: She smuggled refrigerators, clothes, Western movies. She skimmed stuffed animals off the top for herself. She says she made enough money to buy a house near the border as an operations center so her parents wouldn't get in the way. Of course it was illegal, she says, but in North Korea, you can't survive without doing illegal things.

>>DANBI (Through interpreter) The generations think differently. My grandmother's generation thought whatever is available for you, just live with that. And now my generation says we don't want to live with whatever's available, we want to strive to make more.

SHAPIRO: Of course we're only hearing from people who left North Korea, but they say the rest of their generation still in the country shares their outlook. This self-interest has other implications, too. At the shopping mall food court, Joo Yang says her parents revered North Korea's ruling family in a way that her classmates never did.

YANG: Because my father's generation, they are - worshiped to Kim Il Sung very strongly. And they are crying to Kim family. Yeah, so crazy (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Do you think your generation will change North Korea?

YANG: Already (laughter).

SHAPIRO: It's already happened?

YANG: You know.

SHAPIRO: This generation seems to have changed North Korea economically and culturally but not yet politically. The Kim family still rules as completely as ever. The government recently started cracking down on foreign media that gets smuggled into the country, and North Korea increased mandatory education from 11 years to 12. That may be an effort to reverse this trend toward independence and entrepreneurialism and cement the national ideology a little more firmly in the minds of the younger generation. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.