Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week June Lee in the U.S. asks:
In North Korea, is there any coverage of the world outside?
I think the majority of North Koreans don’t know about the news that isn’t covered in the North Korean media. In an isolated country like that there is very little information coming in from the outside world.
A limited number of North Koreans find out about that kind of news and those are the people who frequently visit China on business trips, or those who smuggle on the Sino-NK boarder. Some other people find out about outside news that the North Korean media does not report by secretly listening to South Korean radio.
So, would they hear of news like the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong? There is very little chance of ordinary North Koreans finding out about incidents such as in Hong Kong if it isn’t broadcast on the North Korean media. The only for them to find out about the anti-Chinese government protest in Hong Kong is to listen to South Korean radio in secret.
The North Korean government almost never reports any anti-government protest in other countries, because it is afraid the people would be encouraged to stage a similar anti-government protest to end the dictatorship.
‘One in three North Koreans is an informant for the National Security Department’ is a famous saying that’s been passed down from one generation to the next
But can people spread news by word of mouth at the jangmadang (marketplace)?
My answer would be “no.” It’s impossible for ordinary North Koreans to talk to one another about the news that’s not officially reported by the government. Since there’re informants present at the jangmadang, you could be sent directly to the Security Department if you ever got heard talking about that kind of news by those informants.
“One in three North Koreans is an informant for the National Security Department” is a famous saying that’s been passed down from one generation to the next, all the way back to Korean independence in 1945. Therefore, North Koreans are too afraid to openly talk about unofficial news in public places such as the jangmadang. Even if they ever talk about it, they make sure to do so with their family members within the household; they’d never talk about it outside world.
Then, how do some North Koreans find out that the outside world is different?
In my personal opinion, the majority of North Koreans already know that the outside world is different. They learned that other countries are a lot different from North Korea by watching movies from South Korea, America and Europe since there was an influx of those movies in early 2000s. Until my third year in high school, I’d thought North Korea was not that different from other countries and, in some aspects, North Korea was superior to other countries.
Things changed in my fourth year of high school. When I watched South Korean dramas for the first time in 2002 I was completely shocked, because South Korea was completely different from what I’d always thought it to be. Since then, I’ve been curious about the outside world and what it would be like to live in other countries. Day by day, I grew to want to visit other countries more and more.
I think other people learn the outside world is a lot different from watching movies and video footage. I also think that they hope North Korea would become like those other countries.
Would North Koreans know that freedom, liberty, human rights and democracy exist in some other countries? I think most North Koreans don’t know that those values exist in other countries. They merely learn that life in other countries is freer and more comfortable to live in than in North Korea. They don’t know that people in some other countries can be free and have their human rights respected.
Ordinary North Koreans could secretly listen to foreign radio if they tried to and a minority of people do, I think. I imagine they stay up to date with international news by secretly listening to foreign radios every night.
Even if they do, they can’t openly talk about it once they step out of their homes. Therefore, it’s very hard for word about the outside world to reach a big number of people in North Korea. Also, some North Koreans are too afraid to secretly listen to foreign radio even if they wanted to out of fear of ever getting caught by North Korean government.
If you ever get caught secretly listening to foreign radio, you’re sent straight to National Security Department or prison camps for political prisoners.
Greater access to news may help ordinary North Koreans to some extent. But it will not necessarily bring change to North Korea in a way that helps bring about democratization in there.
To bring change within North Korea, the elites, rather than ordinary people, should change first. Even if there is greater international news coverage in North Korea, it will not necessarily lead to democratization of North Korea. Nor will it change the miserable life condition of North Koreans overnight.
It’s the North Korean leadership and the elites who should change in order for the lives of ordinary North Koreans to get better.
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Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld
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