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’s question is: Many activists say that sending more outside information into North Korea could help open up the country, stimulating rebellion against the state, mass defections, or some other event that shifts the power away from the regime. Do you agree with this? Is information ‘the answer?’ Or do people already know a lot about the outside world?
It took a couple of decades for ordinary North Koreans to realize that South Korea and China are much more advanced and wealthier than themselves. This was possible all due to the regime’s severe bans on outside information: the North Korean government desperately wants to keep the outside information from making its way to its people.
Many ordinary North Koreans believe that the Korean War was started by the United States, not the DPRK, and a lot of them aren’t even aware of the genealogy of the Kim family they are forced to worship.
It is the reign of terror and the control of outside information by the state that has left no hope in North Korea.
But outside information began to make its way into North Korea in the late 90’s. During the famine, it wasn’t just humanitarian aid consisting of food and medical supplies which made its way into North Korea: Chinese goods and products were smuggled, too.
The Chinese economy was progressing at a faster pace than ever and in witnessing this, North Koreans stopped looking down on Chinese people. In the early 2000’s, dramas, movies and music from China, Hong Kong, America and South Korea became popular across the country, dramatically changing people’s perception of the world. North Koreans began to look on the outside world with admiration, a tremendous change for North Koreans who grew up being brainwashed and doing only what they were told by the regime.
Until several years ago (when I was still living in North Korea), movies and TV programs of the outside world were distributed in the forms of CDs and USB flash drive after being smuggled. North Koreans living on the coastline and near the border would listen to Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and even had access to ordinary South Korean TV programs and anti-North Korean broadcasts by South Korea.
…the younger generation’s admiration for outside information never dwindled.
Shortly after that, the regime began to crack down on the households watching TV programs of the outside world in Pyongyang, making people watch and tune into the same channel on television and radio all day. People were no longer able to watch any other channel of their choice, but the younger generation’s admiration for outside information never dwindled.
When I was still in Pyongyang, it took at least 2-3 years for hit South Korean movies to get to North Korea. My sources in North Korea now say that these days, it takes only several days for hit South Korean dramas and movies to get to North Korea. People living in Gaesong and Wonsan record South Korean TV programs when it gets aired and sell copies at the black market on the next day.
GLUED TO THEIR SCREENS
When I was still in North Korea, I only watched South Korean TV occasionally out of sheer curiosity. But these days North Koreans watch it almost every day. I wonder what is on young North Koreans’ minds while they receive education under the socialist dictatorship and watch capitalist media and TV programs at night.
One thing I can tell you for sure is that the influx of outside information has played a role in shaping the way North Koreans perceive the outside world as well as the ways they escape the regime: I’m the perfect example. As I became more familiar with outside information, the society I saw in drama and movies didn’t seem that far-fetched to me anymore.
Financial difficulty and hunger were not the reasons these people left North Korea: they made a decision to escape from North Korea for their children’s future and the admiration they had for South Korean society.
After watching drama and movies, I knew I desperately wanted to live in the world I saw. It became one of the main reasons I left North Korea. While I was staying at a refugee camp in Southeast Asia, most North Korean defectors I met there were already knowledgeable about South Korean society to some extent.
Financial difficulty and hunger were not the reasons these people left North Korea: they made a decision to escape from North Korea for their children’s future and the admiration they had for South Korean society. I think this wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t had access to the information from the outside world.
IMPETUS FOR CHANGE?
At the same time, I don’t think it will cause the collapse of the North Korean regime, and it won’t bring an upheaval or demonstration in North Korean society, either. Let me tell you why.
North Koreans can’t process the information they’ve seen and obtained from the outside world. After growing up so strictly brainwashed by the regime, they often lack the ability to think critically and be creative. The regime continues to exist and wields a massive amount of power over its people through a reign of terror.
It doesn’t matter that North Koreans have realized how irrational the regime is. There’s absolutely nothing they can do. Even if a group of people wanted to get together and initiate any form of demonstration to stand up against the regime, they have to organize a meeting and plan out things accordingly in advance: this just isn’t possible in North Korean society.
In North Korean society, no one knows who’s being watched and who’s working as a secret agent for the regime. If you get caught carrying out any act of espionage, your family and relatives are held responsible for the sins you’ve caused along with you. So North Koreans rarely talk about their true feelings with other people and they hardly ever things off their chest: they will do everything they can do to look as if they’re being loyal to the regime.
It doesn’t matter that North Koreans have realized how irrational the regime is. There’s absolutely nothing they can do.
Of course, an influx of outside information is better than nothing. If information gets distributed around the country steadily and when the perceptions of North Koreans change, we can perhaps hope for the democratization of North Korea then.
But just the fact that North Koreans can now watch South Korean TV drama and movies isn’t enough: creating an atmosphere to help bring an impetus to the transition is more meaningful and efficient.
The above is the perspective of the author, and may not be representative of all North Korean defectors.
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Editing by Oliver Hotham and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Adam Westerman