Kang Na-ra grew up in North Korea and never used the internet.
Even the privileged few of their countrymen, who were allowed smartphones, could only access the nation’s strictly restricted intranet. YouTube, Instagram and Google were completely alien concepts.
Today, Kang is a YouTube star with more than 350,000 subscribers. Her most popular videos have been viewed millions of times. Her Instagram account, which has more than 130,000 followers, features sponsored ads for big brands like Chanel and Puma.
She is among a growing number of North Korean defectors who have made what seemed unlikely careers as a YouTuber and social media influencer after fleeing to South Korea.
Dozens have followed a similar path over the past decade, their videos and accounts offering a rare glimpse into life in the hermit kingdom — the food North Koreans eat, the slang they use, their daily routines.
Some channels offer more political content and examine North Korea’s relations with other countries; others delve into the rich and – for new defectors – whole new worlds of pop culture and entertainment.
But for many of these influencers, who have fled one of the world’s most isolated and poorest nations to one of the most technologically advanced and digitally connected nations, this career path is not as strange as it might seem.
Defectors and pundits say these online platforms not only offer a path to financial independence — but also a sense of agency and self-expression as you adjust to a scary new world.
Defectors are a relatively recent phenomenon; They began entering South Korea “in significant numbers” over the past 20 years, with most fleeing across North Korea’s long border with China, said Sokeel Park, South Korea’s country director for international charitable freedom in North Korea.
More than 33,000 people have defected from North to South Korea since 1998, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, with the number peaking at 2,914 in 2009.
Kang, now 25, is among the many who have made the journey – a journey fraught with risks such as being trafficked into China’s sex trade or being caught and sent back to North Korea, where defectors face torture, imprisonment and even face death.
Kang fled south in 2014 as a teenager to join her mother, who had already defected.
It was tough at first; Like many others, she has faced loneliness, culture shock, and financial pressures. The South’s notoriously competitive job market is even tougher for defectors, who have to adjust to both capitalist society and the hostility of some locals.
In 2020, 9.4% of defectors were unemployed – compared to 4% of the general population, according to the Unification Ministry.
A turning point for Kang came when she began seeking counseling and went to 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 television genre known as “defector TV,” in which defectors were invited to share their experiences.
Some of the most famous shows are Now On My Way To Meet You, which first aired in 2011, and Moranbong Club, which aired in 2015.
Kang appeared on both — and around that time she first saw 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 “documentary my daily life for people who liked me from TV shows.”
Many of her YouTube videos explore differences between the two Koreas, such as contrasting beauty norms, in a light-hearted, chatty style. “In North Korea, it’s not considered good if you have big boobs!” She laughs in a video, recalling her surprise at discovering padded bras and breast implants in the south.
Other videos answer common questions about fleeing North Korea, such as what defectors bring (salt for good luck, a family photo for comfort, and rat poison if they get caught – for “when you know you’re going to die”. )
Eventually, the channel became so popular that she was represented by three management agencies, hired video producers, and began attracting clients for Instagram sponsored content.
“I now have a steady income,” she said. “I can buy and eat what I want, and I can rest when I want.”
This model of success – repeated by other defected YouTubers like Kang Eun-jung with more than 177,000 subscribers; Jun Heo, with more than 270,000 before shutting down his channel this year; and Park Su-Hyang with 45,000 – has inspired many others to join YouTube.
Part of their success, according to Liberty’s Sokeel Park in North Korea, is that defectors are “quite entrepreneurial”.
“I think one factor in that is that you’re in control, you don’t have to be bossed around by a South Korean boss and you have to fret about a South Korean work culture,” he said.
“It may be a struggle, but people have agency … You are your own boss, on your own schedule.”
Defector TV may have helped boost the popularity of some of these influencers – but it has also sparked controversy among the defector community.
Some consider it “imperfect” but helpful in giving the South Korean public greater exposure to their North Korean counterparts, Park said. But many others have criticized the talk shows as sensationalist, overblown, outdated and inaccurate.
For example, the shows often use cartoon graphics, elaborate background sets, and sound effects — such as sad music playing while defectors reminisce about their pasts.
At the end of the day, these are entertainment shows, not documentaries, Park said, adding, “[The shows are]made by South Korean television producers and writers … obviously[the defectors]have no 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 turned to social media.
Many defectors feel “that South Koreans only have 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 whole different level of control and agency to just set up a camera in your home or wherever you’re filming and just speak directly to an audience.”
But for many renegade YouTubers, besides making money from telling their own stories, there is another, loftier goal: bridging the gap between the two Koreas.
It’s a tall order, especially in recent years as relations have soured over disagreements over North’s weapons testing and South’s joint military exercises with the United States.
However, some say these tensions are precisely why it is important to humanize and connect Koreans from both sides.
“I believe it can be helpful for my people in North Korea to let people know about the plight of North Koreans through YouTube,” said Kang Eun-jung, 35, who fled North Korea in 2008 and started her YouTube channel in 2019.
For her, YouTube is a way to “keep reminding myself of who I am and where I come from” — and to educate people about the experiences of defectors.
“When the two Koreas are united, I would like to interview many people in North Korea,” she added.
Still, there’s a problem for those hoping to bridge the gap: their audiences are aging, possibly because their content most appeals to the generation that lived through the 1950s Korean War and its aftermath.
“The generation that remembers North and South Korea as one country is dying,” Park said.
It is all the more urgent to build bridges to the younger generation.
Most of Kang Eun-jung’s viewers are in their 50s or older, while those of Kang Na-ra 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 and are instead bombarded with ominous headlines about the security situation, political rhetoric and military saber-rattling.
As a result, Park says, “Young South Koreans know Americans better than North Koreans. They know the Japanese better than the North Koreans, they know the Chinese (better than the North Koreans).”
“So to be able to re-establish some form of human-to-human contact, understanding and empathy — if it’s North Koreans creating their own YouTube channels — that’s great.”
For Kang Na-ra, who left many friends behind in North Korea and once even considered returning to the repressive regime, this distance feels personal.
“I want to have more (subscribers aged) teenagers and people in their 20s because I want more young people to be interested in unification and interested in North Korea,” she said.
“Wouldn’t it increase the chance that I would return to my hometown before I die? If more young people want Korea to be unified, could it not come true?”