On May 10, InterMedia Associate Director Nathaniel Kretchun delivered a presentation on the changing media environment of North Korea, suggesting that the presence of unsanctioned foreign media has been expanding in recent years and is now providing many citizens with news, entertainment, and alternative opinion. Taken with the increased prevalence of cheap and easy-to-hide communications technologies, foreign media are now undermining Pyongyang’s monopoly on what people see, hear, know – and potentially think. Entitled “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment”, Kretchun was joined at the discussion by a panel of North Korea specialists and practitioners, including Ambassador Robert R. King, Marcus Noland, Martyn Williams, and Korea Economic Institute moderator, Dr. Abraham Kim.
To start off, Kretchun described some of the caveats to consider when assessing his team’s research on the role of foreign media in North Korea. As is often the case with reports on North Korea, Kretchun and colleague Jane Kim compiled the backbone of their research by interviewing defectors who had recently left North Korea. And while this provides one of the best available means of compiling data on opinions and attitudes inside the DPRK, Kretchun reminded the audience that it is by no means a perfect technique.
Kretchun begun his presentation by explaining that the media environment in North Korea had changed substantially in recent years – with the effect that information was beginning to have a real impact on those who had access to it, and in many cases, beyond. Kretchun said that things really started to change in North Korea at the tail end of the famine, during the late 1990s, when many realized that they could no longer count on the state to provide for their basic needs. He described how this factor had led to increases in cross-border traffic, a corresponding greater availability of foreign information, and importantly, a reduction in individual fear. When coupled with increased levels of internal mobility, this latter point had since then had the important effect of increasing people’s willingness to share sanctioned information.
But while the reach of foreign media in North Korea was undoubtedly increasing, Kretchun warned that it was still important to be cautious when making conclusions about its role. Although the punishments for accessing foreign media had decreased and are often times now negotiable (as a result of corruption), Kretchun reminded the audience that very real dangers remained for those looking to obtain foreign sources of media. However, with an increase in media output targeted specifically for North Korean audiences, wed to the growth of easy-to-hide communications technologies like USB keys and DVDs, it was evident that foreign media was now easier to obtain and share than ever in North Korea.
Kretchun went on to describe how these new communications technologies are being used in North Korea, firstly showcasing how the increased proliferation of Chinese cell phones in border areas is both changing the way people defect and introducing direct communications lines to China. For their part, USB devices were changing the way people shared information, giving them hardware that could be hidden easily from authorities. However, despite these two and other new technologies, Kretchun said most people continued to access information primarily through DVD, TV and radio.
Of DVDs, perhaps the most prominent illicit media format, Kretchun explained that research indicated a staggering increase in reach from 28% to 48% of the population between 2008 and 2010. While most of the DVDs being watched in North Korea were mainly for entertainment purposes, Kretchun said that in subtle ways they were having an impact on DPRK citizens. For example, many of the most popular DVDs are South Korean produced soap-operas and dramas, which give North Korean viewers clear insight into both the affluence and lifestyle of their southern neighbors. In border areas, Kretchun added that many North Koreans were also able to pick up foreign TV broadcasts, allowing news to get through to people equipped with appropriate equipment. However, due to geographical constraints, he said it was important not to over-emphasize the role and impact of foreign TV broadcasts.
Moving on, Kretchun went on to describe what his team’s research had found regarding radio – one of the longest established mediums for transmitting news and information into North Korea. Interestingly, research suggested that listener patterns for radio stations set up explicitly for the North Korean population were now changing. Previously it was shown that North Koreans were more passive listeners who did not exercise content preference in their listening behavior. If they found something receivable and in Korean, they listened. Now the broadcasting landscape has evolved to the point where listeners expect to be able to find other stations to listen to if they are not satisfied with the content of what they are listening to and will try to tune to something else.
Having explained how the availability of foreign media was undoubtedly on the increase, Kretchin went on to explain the effects. Pointing to a series of complex data models, he showed how exposure to foreign media was strongly correlated to North Koreans beliefs and attitudes about the outside world – something that was surprisingly true of both news and entertainment programming. But in contrast, research showed that internal perceptions of the regime were largely unaffected by increased exposure to foreign media. Kretchun posited that this was because North Koreans have had little but their own state created propaganda for many years, and that perceptions of domestic issues could be influenced by a wider range of factors than just media.
Beyond the impact on people’s views, Kretchun described how foreign media was also fostering an increase in the creation of horizontal connections. Interestingly, fewer individuals were watching illegal DVDs than ever before, with research showing as many as 63% of people now watched foreign broadcasts together – with close friends or family. Given how harsh the penalties for watching such media used to be, he pointed out that viewers would need no small degree of trust to be happy to watch alongside others. Remarkably, this factor was even leading to the spread of some South Korean colloquialisms among young people in North Korea.
In conclusion, Kretchun said that while North Korea may one day revert to becoming stricter with regards to illicit media, it was evident that citizens could not “un-know” what they had already been exposed to. As such, he said any true retrenchment for the regime was now impossible. He added that as the dynamics changed, it was also important to acknowledge that the process would for the large part continue under the radar for now. As such, developments both on the ground and in the media environment would be important issues to track in future, Kretchun concluded.
Following Kretchuns remarks, economist Marcus Noland gave context to the presentation through a series of comments based on his own research over the past decade. Reflecting Kretchun’s earlier point, Noland started by underscoring the impact the great famine had had in catalyzing the growth of independent thought and private enterprise in Nroth Korea. After state provision failed during this time, several entrepreneuers emerged who would make money through distributing illegal DVDs. And while many still viewed central government or the military as the preferred place to forge a career, Noland explained that many were motivated to do this for economical reasons – to raise revenue through extorting money from the general population, often for their specific possession of foreign media. Contrasted with the harsh punishments of the 1980s and early 90s, this corruption was in effect lessening the penalty for viewing foreign materials. Taken together, Noland explained that this meant that even in rural areas, the impact of foreign media was being felt increasingly.
In continuing his remarks, Noland took issue with some of Kretchun & Kim’s findings regarding the perceptions that foreign media were generating in-country. He noted that while their report suggested exposure to foreign media generally does not impact upon North Korean citizens’ views of their own government, his own interviews with defectors had suggested otherwise. He said his research found that foreign media did often encourage an increase in dissenting views – especially against Pyongyang’s traditional narrative that all of North Korea’s problems were caused by outside factors.
Noland went on to say that despite the small difference in research findings, he nonetheless agreed with many of Kretchun’s findings. In particular, it was becoming clearer that North Korean society was becoming less atomized, with social trust increasing and consequently increasing numbers of people sharing their own personal views – something that never used to happen. He underscored the importance of this fact, saying that it was an important factor in trying to understand the future prospects for political stability in North Koreea.
Rounding off, Noland said that the report gave some cautious cause for optimism – there was clear evidence of falling inhibitions amongst the North Korean populace and an increase in group media consumption. As such, he concluded by advocating a number of ways that the outside world could capitalize from these developments, suggesting that funding could be increased for radio stations, transmitters be strengthened, and smart phones introduced to the DPRK. He ended his remarks by underscoring that that the overarching goal of any multimedia strategy should be to “intensify the contradictions and provide people with useful information to…encourage accountability in an otherwise completely unaccountable regime”.
To end the conversation, Martyn Williams of NK Tech spoke about some of the difficulties faced by foreign radio broadcasters and North Korea’s own efforts to communicate in the 21st century media environment.
On the subject of radio, Williams described North Korea’s efforts to block foreign radio stations as consisting normally of an 18 hour jamming effort, typically focused on stopping the most prominent stations from broadcasting into the DPRK. Of this jamming effort, Williams said that it illustrated just how effective radio had become – for if it was not been something listened to beyond a few hundred people, North Korea would have never invested in the resources needed to block foreign transmissions. However, he added that jamming (and broadcasting) efforts had become increasingly erratic in recent months, with long periods arising when there was no signal blocking taking place at all. But at the same time, the North Korean authorities’ aggressive efforts to jam foreign signals around national celebrations like the recent April 15 festivities in some ways underscored just how fearful Pyongyang was still of radio broadcasts.
Continuing his remarks, Williams descibred how foreign media were not just broadcasting international news into North Korea, and that some were actually now transmitting domestic news back into the country – sourced originally using aforementioned communications technologies imported into North Korea. He remarked how developments such as these were helping some North Koreans make their mind up about defecting, citing one recent conversation he had with a refugee who had said that radio had played an important part in his decision making process.
To round up his remarks, Williams touched upon how the internet was now also providing a new vector for the North Korean state to export its own news and information to the outside world. He explained how since 2010 several new North Korean websites had emerged, including DPRK affiliated social media assets that were even pointing viewers to non-state websites and fringe news outlets – something unthinkable even just a few years ago.
Following the questions and answer session (which you can watch on their archive recording), Ambassador Robert R. King, United States special envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues commended the paper’s authors, saying that the research was both a valuable and important piece of information for the North Korea watcher community.
Entitled “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment,” Kretchun was joined at the discussion by a panel of North Korea specialists and practitioners, including Ambassador Robert King, Marcus Noland, Martyn Williams, and Korea Ecoomic Insitute moderator Dr. Abraham Kim. The event was hosted by Korea Economic Institute and InterMedia.