Trading with their U.S. dollars (many of which are counterfeit) for Chinese products, North Koreans have come to recognize the existence of leaders greater even than the Kims. Who are these men gracing U.S. bank notes? North Koreans now see that loyalty to the supreme leader has brought no tangible benefits; yet currency bearing the faces of American men is exchanged for many things: rice, meat, even a promotion at work.

Today, when North Koreans are ordered by their state employer to take part in political activities, they know their time is being wasted. Fewer North Koreans show up for their state jobs. This growing economic and psychological independence among regular people is becoming the greatest thorn in the regime’s side.

It is also the key to change. Instead of focusing on the regime and its agents as possible instigators of reform, we must recognize the power of the flourishing marketplace to slowly but definitively transform North Korea from the bottom up. This empowerment of the North Korean people is crucial not only for a positive transformation of the nation, but also for ensuring a stable transition to the new era after the regime eventually goes.

Increasing trade with China has made the North Korean border porous in many ways, facilitating a flow of information in and out of the country. Many North Koreans can now access South Korean television programs that are smuggled in on DVDs or memory sticks.