Beating The Information Blockade In Our Own Style

Regardless of Google calls to open the internet, North Koreans find alternative ways to break the information blockade
February 21st, 2013
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With last month’s visit to North Korea by Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, much media attention was focused on speculation of whether North Korea might soon open up to the Internet. After his visit, Mr. Schmidt made a statement that North Korea should enter the information age in line with the rest of the world and warned that if this did not happen, the nation’s economic development might suffer. But regardless of Schmidt’s calls, it seems the information age has already dawned in North Korea – through the jangmadang.

After the mass famine and ‘Arduous March’ of the 90s, currency revaluations, and the collapse of the Public Distribution System on which North Koreans depended on for so long, North Koreans had to look for ways to survive on their own. One of the most effective ways to do so was through the jangmadang, which means ‘market-place/market-square’ in Korean.

After these illegal markets took hold in the life of the country, access to outside information took on a value it did not used to have. To cite one example, once news of an international food aid shipment spreads, the price of rice will drop in the jangmadang. Those who hear this news before others by listening to outside radio may choose to sell the rice before the drop in price. In this way, access to information now determines the price of basic goods in North Korea.

Oh Ji-hyun is a North Korean refugee who left the country two years ago. A veteran trader in the jangmadang, she told us, “As the jangmadang developed in North Korea, more goods were brought into the country that fit consumers’ demands. Traders came to be in tough competition with each other, and we had to be plugged into a logistical network in order to move our goods efficiently. The mobile phone was an important tool for staying abreast of fluctuations in exchange rate and demand of goods.”

This kind of connectivity is more important in the jangmadang of the remote provinces. In fact, many refugees have testified that the further you travel from Pyongyang, the stronger the influence of the jangmadang in the everyday life of the people. This indicates that the further away you are from the totalitarian grip of the central authorities, the more you can participate in the dawn of North Korea’s information age.

This is why North Koreans living in remote provinces are ahead of Pyongyang’s residents in terms of their familiarity with market forces, and are more sensitive to factors such as fluctuations in currency exchange and outside information that affect the prices in the jangmadang. The onset of the information age in the remote provinces is even reinforcing the onset of the information age in Pyongyang itself.

Of course, this is not an information age brought on by computers and the internet, as per Eric Schmidt’s recommendation. Moreover, this is an information revolution instigated not by the regime, but by the people, and in spite of the authorities’ restrictions on organic information flow.

In fact, an increasing number of North Koreans are exchanging information and engaging in public discussion – in spite of the information blockade enforced by the leadership – through taking a train ride. Trains are perhaps the closest equivalent of the internet in North Korea.

In the trains used by ordinary North Koreans for travel, it is so crowded that even the toilets are full of people and luggage. Standing shoulder to shoulder hours at a time for a journey of several days, the atmosphere can get intense. Yet it is in this pressured environment that criticism of the regime can spill out of the mouths of ordinary citizens. North Korean refugee Ju-haeng*, 43 years of age, told us, “North Korean trains are chaotic inside, but in the train compartments we can hear news about the outside world and even complain about our leaders.”

In a gathering of people, there may sometimes be a clown. North Korean refugees say that jokes cracked in a train tend to revolve around mocking the behaviour of officials and letting off steam about problems in society. North Korean refugee Young-jin*, 39 years of age, told us, “On the train, the usual hierarchies that are observed in the workplace and in social settings don’t apply for some reason. Many feel comfortable cracking jokes that they wouldn’t dare in another setting. Maybe feeling more comfortable among strangers is a Korean thing. That is why we can be ourselves on the train. Moreover, we know we won’t see any of these people again – that certainly helps us let our guards down.”

In a country where a small conversational mistake can bring one’s life to an end, the train must feel to some to lie outside the DPRK jurisdiction.

In this way, North Koreans live in an information age sustained at times by word of mouth, at other times through the use of mobile phones; in either case, the international community should make more efforts to connect with these North Koreans, who are still compelled to live behind an information blockade enforced by the North Korean leadership.

With credits to New Focus International

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About the Author

Shirley Lee

Shirley Lee is a writer and translator whose work has been widely published. She is Contributing Editor at NK NEWS and Editor of New Focus International. A speaker of Persian, Spanish and Korean, she holds a degree in Classics and Oriental Studies from Oxford University.

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