This is the third part of a series which will attempt to dive into some of the details of information access and consumption in North Korea, strive to explain the relevance of unprecedented level of illicit access among North Koreans to foreign media, and address the role of information in North Korea’s future. You can read part one here and part two here.

North Korean watchers and scholars have predicted various North Korean collapse scenarios, along with conditions that will most likely lead to regime collapse. Variations on ‘soft landing,’ ‘hard landing,’ and ‘no landing’ scenarios comprise popular fodder for collapsist discussion. If not collapse, then variations on the theme of regime evolution play out.

For the Kim family to survive, the North Korean state cannot change or modernize in any meaningful way. Significant political and economic liberalization will fundamentally undermine the regime, which heavily relies on ideology, the cult of personality, an isolated population, and the manipulation of history to survive.

Necessary but not sufficient

What is certain, however, is that the active flow of goods and information plays a central role in the consciousness of North Koreans and has sparked irreversible changes inside the country.  The information that people are taking in and the opinions that people are forming cannot be unlearned or erased from their memory.

Providing alternate realities and pushing people to think beyond their comfort zones will continue to plant seeds of doubt in people’s minds towards the government. Discontent does not begin with physical resistance and protests on the streets, discontent is born in people’s minds.

One of these concrete changes has to do with media consumers’ heightened awareness of higher living standards outside of North Korea, which has compelled many North Koreans to question why they have to live in such poor conditions. It is not that different from what many former Soviet Union residents refer to as the “battle between the television and the refrigerator,” that is, the push and pull between state propaganda and actual living standards.

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While life is improving for many North Koreans, standards of living remain low | Photo by Roman Harak

Some people, especially young people, may develop an envy of the things they see on the screen. But such envy of smoother skin, elegant South Korean speech, and brightly lit streets at night rarely translates into actionable desire to defect. Chores around the house, school, work, and the daily grind of living quickly replace the wishful thinking and envy that the foreign movies can provoke. Others are able to mentally relegate foreign films into a taboo hobby category, and convince themselves through sheer willpower that the film’s value is solely entertainment.

Discontent does not begin with physical resistance and protests on the streets, discontent is born in people’s minds.

Taking the long view

North Koreans who remain inside North Korea and those who will defect all need time to digest, internalize, and think critically about the information they are gaining from films, TV shows, books, radio, and word of mouth about the world beyond their country’s borders. No matter how much people absorb in a condensed period, they need time to process and figure out what they want to accept, reject, or ruminate on further.

If one were to believe the way that mass media covers this subject matter, one would be tempted to believe that all North Koreans who watch an American Hollywood movie or a South Korean romance drama suddenly crave freedom and start planning for their defection.

But this narrative is grossly oversimplified, and does a disservice to the nuanced process which many North Koreans go through whereby they come to terms with competing realities and try to neutralize the cognitive dissonance in their minds. As one North Korean student shared with me, “the idea that exposure to a single film compels North Koreans to make such big sacrifices and take risks to leave their hometown and defect from their country makes them seem like brainless idiots.”

As one North Korean student shared with me: “the idea that exposure to a single film compels North Koreans to make such big sacrifices and take risks to leave their hometown and defect from their country makes them seem like brainless idiots.”

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The process of deciding to leave North Korea is a long and difficult one | Photo by uritours

Information dissemination campaigns are essential to sustaining the small changes in North Korea that are already taking root. People who have been working in this space, however – both in North Korea and in other illiberal countries – warn that such campaigns need to take place with a long-term plan in mind. A one-time operation or a ‘rescue mission’ mentality will backfire and will sustain the status quo for longer.

Role of outsiders in information campaigns

As information access initiatives targeting North Korea becomes trendier in the era of technology-meets-human rights, it’s even more important to think about the role that we as outsiders play. Actors who are both directly and indirectly involved in funding and facilitating the distribution of content must continue to exercise utmost responsibility and caution.

Others who study, research, analyze, and popularize this work for a general audience must exercise even more discretion. Ultimately, I believe that there are plenty of roles for outsiders to fill to collectively increase the quality and quantity of information that should be sent into North Korea.

No matter how much people absorb in a condensed period of time, they need time to process and figure out what they want to accept, reject, or ruminate on further

Noble intentions aside, outsiders bear relatively little to no costs in implementing information campaigns. Of course, there are sporadic assassination threats and attempts made against high-profile defectors by the North Korean government: these are threats with real consequences and should not be downplayed.

But relatively, the recipients of information campaigns — people who outsiders will most likely never meet — bear all the costs. The risks that North Korean citizens take in order to consume foreign content are real: punishments include inordinate fines, public executions, sentences to political prison camps or re-education camps, and more.  

Although I do not view information campaigns into North Korea as explicitly humanitarian work, I believe that the criticism of humanitarian work directly applies to this field. Michael Maren, author of The Road to Hell: the Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity, views humanitarianism as equally damaging to its subjects as colonialism, and vastly more dishonest.

Maren argues that humanitarians do not care about those to whom they send aid, but rather that their focus is their own virtue. Harvard Law Professor David Kennedy, who is also deeply skeptical of humanitarian work, propounds that “humanitarianism tempts us to hubris, to an idolatry about our intentions and routines, to the conviction that we know more than we do about what justice can be.”

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North Koreans take great risks bringing disseminating outside information | Photo by Roman Harak

In extrapolating these two deeply critical views of humanitarian work to these campaigns that aspire to evolve, open up, and liberalize the world’s most durable authoritarian regime, I recognize the necessity to maintain a recipient’s need-based mindset. North Korean people must remain at the center of all of these efforts.  

There is no clean and quantifiable answer that could absolve activists of the moral guilt that results from the harm that is done to North Korean people by their government if they are caught. Every individual who is directly and indirectly involved in these efforts should exercise responsibility and extreme caution in their part.

However, at the center of this moral question seems to be the willingness of the North Korean people who proactively and consciously seek to consume foreign information with the full acknowledgment that this act is a crime in the eyes of their government and can result in great harm. North Koreans know the risks that they face in consuming foreign content more than anyone else.

Assumptions to question

For active participants and viewers alike, there are a few ideas that I believe we should guard against. First, the common assumption that more internet and connective technologies guarantees democracy and liberal values ought to be robustly questioned. China is a prime example of more digital technologies not leading to democratization and more human rights for its citizens.

North Koreans know the risks that they face in consuming foreign content more than anyone else

This point is a reality check but is certainly not meant to discourage actors in this field; more information is necessary – albeit not sufficient – in a potentially liberal future for North Korea and other closed societies.

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For activists hoping to bring change, the long term approach is necessary | Photo by Changes In Longitude

Secondly, the North Korean regime should not be underestimated in its technological savviness and awareness of the both overt and semi-stealth information initiatives targeting its citizens. The watermarking capability that their latest version of their native operating system, Red Star, is only one of many functions that they have developed to deter, monitor, and punish citizens who commit alleged information crimes.

The regime is subtly changing and adapting to their citizens to continue their system of rule. This requires North Korea watchers to be open minded, creative, and think about how North Korea is and could be changing. If anything, some North Korean watchers are the ones stagnant in our Cold War-era style of framing our observations about North Korea while North Korea is quietly adapting its unique form of government to the changing world.

The way forward

The fact that the North Korean government is such a ruthless and relentless regime has encouraged activists in this area to become even more entrepreneurial, resourceful, and creative than they would otherwise have been to meet the demands of citizens living inside North Korea.

Justice Michael Kirby, who chaired the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on North Korean human rights, has encouraged people who are interested in this topic of information access and broader human rights to “think outside the square of complacent formalism.” 

We as fellow human beings privileged with political freedoms ought to take up Justice Kirby’s challenge to us all.