On the second day of the Bitcoin Conference, the world’s largest conference of cryptocurrency enthusiasts, Human Rights Foundation Strategy Director Alex Gladstein moderated the “Bitcoin is Freedom” panel with Togolese activist and author Farida Nabourema, political commentator Fadi Elsalameen and North Korean regime survivor Yeonmi Park, who discussed how cryptoassets can enable freedom in oppressed countries.
Park, who has dedicated her life to denouncing human trafficking in North Korea since she herself was a victim, began her speech by explaining the complex economic dynamics of her home country in order to be able to illustrate the importance of Bitcoin to the cause of freedom under totalitarian regimes such as Kim Jong-un’s.
“Without freedom, why do we even need money?” was one of her opening lines. The North Korean activist and author explained that in her country, in the midst of the 21st century, citizens have no right to private property and do not even know what the Internet is.
In North Korea, Park recounted, until a few years ago, only bankers or people with influence had access to banking, and the only way citizens found to generate income and save was by working on the black market and hiding money in home stashes.
“We all know that North Korea strived to become a socialist paradise where there is no inequality,” Park joked, explaining that Kim Jong-un’s regime implemented a demonetization in 2009 that immediately eradicated the savings of all citizens who had worked for decades on the black market.
Since then, with no access to local currency, North Koreans have struggled to obtain U.S. dollars or Chinese yuan to run their families’ economies. That is one of the reasons why human trafficking, especially of North Korean women, has become a lucrative business in the Asian black market, mostly in China.
Park imagines “a different world” through Bitcoin
As Park, who was sold for less than $300 as a sex slave in China, explained, there is no way for North Koreans returning home, whether victims of forced prostitution or black market participants, to hide money or jewelry on their bodies as the regime thoroughly checks every person who enters.
But Bitcoin could be a powerful weapon for North Koreans, Park suggests, as it is enough to memorize a code to be able to exchange goods and services for virtual, secure money that the socialist regime cannot take away.
Most North Koreans who manage to escape their country end up in China, whose communist regime “sponsors” Kim Jong-un “to stay in power and be a dictator,” Park explained. As a result of the one-child policy that China implemented for decades, millions of men who cannot get married or procreate turn to North Korean sex slaves.
If North Korean women enslaved in China become pregnant, give birth and are then captured, they are sent to prison camps in North Korea, where they are locked up until death. Their children, left orphaned and adrift, cannot acquire a nationality because they were not born on North Korean territory and the Chinese regime does not recognize them as legitimate citizens.
“These children, without an ID from the government, cannot even go to elementary school,” Park explained. “There are 300,000 North Korean women right now in China and the children are about over one million of them, we don’t know quite fully how many are there.”
Underground religious groups have organized education programs for those children, according to Park’s testimony. To stock up, they send Bitcoin to Chinese brokers in exchange for school supplies, with the goal of preventing the children from being trafficked, and that they can “get educated and find a way out.”
“That’s a way we can empower those women and children through Bitcoin,” the activist sentenced. “In my life, nothing has been more evil than the government has been. The North Korean regime is a testament to how evil a government can be to individuals. So if there is a way that North Koreans can understand that they can have their own autonomy, decide what money they can buy and what they can do, we would see a different world, one that we can’t possibly fathom right now. We can create a much better world that nobody needs to be sold.”