Despite the proliferation of media devices in North Korea as well as increased access to information, the North Korean government has been able to adapt in an attempt maintain tight control, according to a new report published on Wednesday.
The report, conducted by Intermedia, draws on a survey of 350 North Korean defectors and travelers as well as investigations into the technical makeup of North Korean devices and software.
In recent years North Korea has experienced a limited digital revolution with the proliferation of mobile phones and devices, coupled with government promoted intranet uses and applications.
While this provides the potential for further exposure to information and a challenge to North Korean authorities attempting to maintain total control, the DPRK government is using a combination of existing measures and new technology to implemented a system of pervasive surveillance and censorship.
“More North Koreans have greater access to a larger variety of media content and communication devices. However, it is equally clear the North Korean state is determined to regain control of how and what information its citizens access,” the report’s conclusion reads.
“Rather than attempting to recreate the information blockade and national sequestration of the Kim Il Sung era, the state’s recent technological innovations strongly suggest it is moving toward a new, but no less heavily controlled information environment,” it added.
This extensive control of information, according to the report, occurs at the network, device specific and human levels.
Across these levels the North Korean government seeks to censor content, survey usage and maintain integrity over provided information, the report says.
The DPRK’s network is a closed intranet system that is not connected to the external internet, ensuring that North Koreans are only accessing content allowed by the authorities.
According to the report, the network usage is monitored closely by North Korean authorities despite the growth of users.
The digital devices themselves – provided by the North Korean government – contain mandatory software that only permits approved content and software, which is able to delete unsanctioned files that do not have government code signature to prevent sharing.
Via software, the North Korean authorities are also able to log the device usage and export the data if it is obtained by security personnel.
The report’s authors additionally found that in some instances unsanctioned content is not wholly deleted but is instead tracked, collecting personal device signatures that allow authorities to identify social networks and users that have shared or viewed prohibited content.
“North Korean authorities have also implemented tamper-resistant software within their modern devices to ensure that citizens cannot circumvent software controls,” the report says.
On the human level, North Korea’s ability to control its people has persevered with the report citing an increase of crackdowns.
“North Korean security forces have responded to the increased use of digital media and micro-storage devices with an increased number of crackdowns,” the report reads.
This includes raids on homes, confiscation of devices, the use of informants and the technology to track the use of unsanctioned mobile devices.
“Security forces are now starting to be aided by the increased use of technology such as triangulation of domestic and Chinese cell phones to help them locate targets,” the report reads.
While many of the technology adaptations by the North Korean government involve the use of technology and software on approved devices, maintaining information flow control mechanisms is also affecting the perceived security of users acquiring information via unsanctioned methods.
This includes via traditional modes of information consumption enjoyed by North Koreans through the use of radios, DVDs, CDs and other methods to consume foreign news broadcasts and entertainment.
The report states that 64 percent of those surveyed believe it has become more dangerous to watch foreign dramas since Kim Jong Un took power and zero percent saying it is less dangerous.
Punishments for listening to foreign radio under Kim’s tenure have also become more severe, according to 77 percent of respondents, again with zero percent saying it has waned.
According to the survey, however, corruption has been able to mitigate some of these impacts with 184 of the 350 surveyed respondents saying they have been able to bribe officials to avoid punishment.
Despite the proliferation of new technologies used in North Korea, the survey shows the top source of information for North Koreans is still “word of mouth” communication, with 71 percent of those surveyed choosing this option.
The use of foreign radio is second at 11 percent, with domestic TV and South Korean TV at 3 percent each, Chinese TV at 2 percent and Party Circulars at 1 percent.
But the survey also indicates that North Koreans use their devices for increasingly varied reasons.
“The development and diversification of the media environment in North Korea is powerfully underscored by the wide range of media devices that a substantial proportion of North Koreans can now access,” the report reads.
This includes DVD players, MP3 players, USB flash drives, SD cards, Micro-SD cards, tablets, computers, a variety of radios, television and for a very small minority, the internet. This has also resulted in an increase of media access since 2010.
Although the survey is non-representative and limited to defectors and travelers, it could indicate the proliferation of mobile devices is relatively widespread.
The range of uses of these mobile devices is also varied, with North Koreans using the phones to send and receive text messages, take, send and receive photos and videos as well as sending or receiving other files.
This has resulted in North Koreans being connected and able to communicate more often.
“The country is transforming from an environment in which the state attempted to actively prevent horizontal person-to-person connection to one in which legal cell phones are greatly expanding the range and accelerating the speed of such connections,” the report reads.
The emerging trends from those surveyed, while in the shadow of the state, may have larger impacts in the future, the report says.
“While the state continues to maintain a huge power imbalance over its own people, these negotiations are likely to gradually make North Korea look less like an autarkic global outlier,” the report read.
“It even suggests the possibility for the emergence of something resembling civil society.”
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Featured Image: IMG_9856 by NK10/10 on 2015-10-09 08:49:34