About the Author
View more articles by In-hua Kim
In-hua Kim is a pseudonym for a North Korean defector writer. She left the DPRK in 2018, and now resides in South Korea.
Hello there, NK News readers! We hope you’re all keeping well despite the current coronavirus situation.
And, of course, welcome back to Ask a North Korean: the feature where you, yes you, can email in with your questions about life in the DPRK and have them answered by our very own North Korean writers!
Today’s question is about how much North Koreans know about the world outside the DPRK.
It’s well-known that information is tightly controlled in North Korea, but it’s also well-known that banned DVDs and other media are often smuggled across the border with China and sold throughout the country.
In-hua Kim discusses how North Koreans get their information, what kind of news they’re interested in, and also a famous American novel she once read while still in the country.
Got a question for In-hua? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Ordinary North Koreans have very skimpy knowledge about the outside world. An extension of the isolationist policies of 19th century Joseon, the North Korean government maintains thorough control to sever society from the outside world, lest its people see through the illusion created about other countries.
If caught accessing foreign magazines, newspapers, radio, or television, you will be sent to a reformatory, political prisoner camp, or, in the worst case, shot to death.
Regardless, there are some foreign literature and scientific magazines that are introduced to North Korea. And some learn about the world through books like the Guinness World Records.
Up until the early 1990s, many classic foreign novels were translated and published. While the majority grow up mainly reading and watching stories about the Kim family, those who read avidly during this time are able to name well-known authors such as Henrik Ibsen, Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Margaret Mitchell.
My father bought me Gone with the Wind from the market in 1995. When I read it, I thought to myself that even the Americans of the 19th century were ahead of us North Koreans in terms of their thinking. North Korean lives just seemed miserable and futile.
You used to be able to check out such foreign books at the county, city, and provincial libraries. During the Arduous March (the North Korean famine of the 1990s), these library books started appearing in the market — library staff were making money by selling them.
Things about South Korea always pique the interest of North Koreans. They see how the financial aid sent from defectors in the South to their families in the North have transformed lives.
The families of defectors live in decent comfort, as long as they don’t get in trouble with the ministry of state security and the public security station (보안서).
Many, especially those in the border area, outright wish that their grown-up children manage to make it to South Korea someday.
After South Korea, people also want to hear about the U.S. and China. North Koreans are taught that the failure of their economy is due to U.S. sanctions, so they hope for a day when such measures are lifted so that their country can prosper and be properly accepted in international society.
Interest in China can be pragmatic: those who are interested in defecting are always seeking up-to-date news on China so that they can assure their safe passage through the country. China tends to reinforce security around national holidays and events so defectors avoid those dates.
Television and newspapers are one source of information, but people generally rely on news from smugglers and traders that frequently cross the border. North Korea’s geographic proximity allows them to rather easy access about what’s going on on the other side of the Yalu River.
When it comes to news about countries like the U.S. though, people have to depend on what state media is saying.
It’s possible that uneducated people who live outside of Pyongyang are completely ignorant about the world beyond their country’s borders. Many probably have no idea about what nations exist in the world, how other people live, and what races and tribes are out there.
Beginning in the year 2005, the so-called ‘100 books’ (백부도서) started to circulate in secluded markets in big cities like Pyongsong and Hamheung.
When the North Korean government purchases foreign novels, it prints 100 copies and distributes them to North Korean writers so that they can enhance their understanding of foreign literature.
The writers, who were struggling to make a living, began making their own copies and selling them — even though they were meant to keep the books to themselves.
Those secretly circulating books drew huge interest, and people began buying them and telling the stories to one another.
I myself enjoyed a few American novels around that time, while I was still in North Korea. I begged those who have got their hands on South Korean novels to lend them to me, but they refused, saying that they would be put to death if caught.
This shadowy book distribution system eventually caught the eye of the authorities, however, so these books completely disappeared in around two years. The houses of booksellers were searched and those found in possession of the regulated books were arrested.
Booksellers today only sell literature on the Kim family written by North Korean writers. Obviously these books aren’t of much interest to ordinary people, so those who sell them barely manage to feed themselves.
A friend of mine who was running a bookshop often complained about her difficult work and wished to go to South Korea. She passed away last year, unable to realize that wish.
Many probably have no idea about what nations exist in the world, how other people live, and what races and tribes are out there
Both the ministry of state security and public security station have a division that specializes in hunting down viewers of ‘impure’ videos.
They randomly choose target houses and knock on their doors to search. They examine their TVs, recorders, and CDs.
Those caught with a South Korean movie are sent to a reformatory. Those caught with an American or Chinese movie are sent to a training camp (단련대), a lenient punishment by comparison.
The more people that are drawn to foreign material (mainly smuggled in through China), the more harshly people are suppressed by the government.
Yet, despite severe crackdowns, people’s obsession with foreign material doesn’t seem to wane.
Translated by Jihye Park
Edited by James Fretwell