This is the first 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.

A growing proportion of North Korean citizens have been accessing foreign information and media for over two decades. But why is foreign information access, distribution and consumption inside North Korea such a big deal? Why is such a common phenomenon considered to be so disruptive in North Korea?

The most basic answer to this question is that information that is not approved by the regime can compromise the regime’s foundational pillars. Controlled media, propaganda, fabricated history, commentary about world events, and a constructed social order are manufactured and vetted through the North Korean bureaucracy.

Significance of information monopolization

By attempting to seal off its population from external influences, the government has been successful in keeping the regime in the hands of the Kim family. North Korean leaders view seemingly harmless USBs and radios as weapons against the state, and they invest significant resources in preventing such media from entering the country.

…information that is not approved by the regime has the capacity to compromise the regime’s foundational pillars

This is not an overstatement: North Korea has made numerous public statements about how it considers information campaigns as acts of war by South Korea and the United States, and that it would respond proportionately to the scale of the perceived threat.

The regime’s prickly sensitivity to foreign information is evident by its international and domestic reaction to it. For example, North Korea was willing to resume talks with South Korea after the landmine tragedy in August 2015 soon after South Korea turned on the loudspeakers at the DMZ with anti-regime propaganda and K-pop that could be heard 10-12 miles into North Korea.

Ratcheting up economic sanctions or verbal condemnations by the international community to punish North Korea for its provocative missile and weapons testing rarely prompts them to engage in dialogue. But foreign information does because North Korea is terrified by the very real possibility that an increasingly informed citizenry cannot be fully controlled with tools from the 20th-century dictatorship’s toolkit.

But what are North Koreans legally permitted to watch and listen to? Plenty of articles describe how North Koreans can read, watch and listen to only North Korean government sanctioned radio stations, television channels, newspapers, literature and books, music, entertainment, and news. Every word that is meant to be heard by citizens is carefully crafted and vetted by internal processes.  No political, social or cultural space legally exists to allow for free exchange of ideas or voicing of a semblance of discontent about the government.

North Korea has made numerous public statements about how it considers information campaigns as acts of war by South Korea and the United States

More citizens tuning into the outside world

But this reality is changing, to the government’s dismay. Although North Korean laws have not changed regarding foreign media, significant swaths of the country are learning more about the world via foreign entertainment and media. It is difficult to know how many people are listening, or how long the average watch/listening session is, since conducting in-country sessions is impossible.

north korean television photo

Information in North Korea is strictly controlled | Photo by m•o•m•o

But it is clear that increasing numbers of people listen and watch foreign media, and the programs do influence many of them. When asked to estimate the percentage of people in their hometowns who watch foreign films and access media, most defectors answer 70 to 80 percent.  

The radio penetration rate is estimated to be 8-15% of the country’s population. Some NGOs that broadcast radio into North Korea also put the radio programming on their website to make their content available for people outside North Korea with access to the internet. Their website analytics reveal that some listeners who visit their site listen for several hours at a time.

The countries that the listeners are from are those with North Korean embassies. The NGOs infer that the listeners are probably North Korean diplomats and others who work abroad with the government’s permission. But for the activists, it does not matter which North Koreans listen to their content. Its content is meant for all North Koreans to listen to.

A researcher at the South Korean Institute for National Unification (KINU) who has been interviewing defectors for twenty years, told me she and her colleagues cannot remember a single defector they have interviewed from recent years who has not seen or at least heard about foreign media before entering South Korea. (Her statement accounts for defectors who watched media while transiting through China.)

Of course defectors make up a select demographic within North Korea, but many say that even those who do not have any desire to defect from North Korea consume foreign media. A minority who do not watch films are those who are too scared or are too poor to bribe officials if they are caught.  

When asked to estimate the percentage of people in their North Korean hometowns who watch foreign films and access media, most defectors answer 70 to 80 percent

It is relevant to note that 76-84 percent of the 30,000 defectors settled in South Korea today are from either North Hamgyong Province or Ryanggang Province, which are provinces contiguous to the North Korean-Chinese border. People who live in these two provinces are assumed to receive more foreign media as compared to the rest of the country. The proximity to the 880-mile long border provides relatively easier access to the outside world, given the amount of trade that takes place between the neighboring countries.

North Korea’s Criminalization

Under their penal code, “Listening to unauthorized foreign broadcasts and possessing dissident publications are considered ‘crimes against the state’ that carry serious punishments, including hard labor, prison sentences, and the death penalty.” The state continues to invest in its surveillance infrastructure to deter and punish people who access forbidden information.  All electronic media devices are required to be registered with local authorities.  

Unannounced door-to-door inspections of electronic media devices have been taking place for over a decade. Local authorities can stop a citizen on the street at any time, take their phone and scan the phone for any activity or content that is illegal. Raids on street markets to look for foreign media are not rare.

Of course defectors make up a select demographic within North Korea, but many say that even those who do not have any desire to defect from North Korea consume foreign media

Surveillance machines can detect North Korean cell phones making an international phone call within minutes. Citizens are incentivized to snitch on each other, although this is changing as more people are engaging in unauthorized activity (like market activity and watching foreign shows) and are covering for each other more than ever.

north korea newspapers photo

State media tows the party line | Photo by Roman Harak

Unauthorized activities at the group level is building trust among people out of self-survival – a significant point because this social change is eroding the systematic atomization of North Korean society. Local news stories that are sourced by North Korean stringers reveal executions of citizens who copied and distributed foreign films inside the country.  Such victims are often scapegoats for this widespread activity, as authorities simply cannot round up and kill everyone who watches foreign films.  

Even people in authority positions, including those whose job it is to inspect household media, watch foreign content. Individuals in mid to senior political positions in North Korea who have defected share that they were able to be fully loyal to the regime, and also enjoy foreign media. It was just a taboo hobby to them.

More commonly, some people who are caught with foreign media are sentenced to prison camps or detention facilities. Much more frequently, those who are caught are fined inordinate amounts of money. Local authorities who confiscate films or USBs can and do resell the contraband to pocket the side money. Hence, the most tacit cooperation that exists between citizen and authority at the local level, the less punishment the citizen generally receives.

Local news stories that are sourced by North Korean stringers reveal executions of citizens who copied and distributed foreign films inside the country

Myths of everyone who watches a foreign film or listens to a forbidden radio program being executed are just that: myths. The increasing prevalence of people’s exposure to foreign information and the culture of bribery and complicity among local authorities jointly reduce the strict implementation of laws that call for citizens to be harshly punished for every incident of foreign media consumption. 

Information Warfare Cat-and-Mouse Chase

North Korean people have been finding ways to evade government detection to watch and listen to what they want, despite the steep risks involved. The information warfare cat-and-mouse game that the citizens and the government have been playing to outsmart the other has inadvertently contributed to the evolving technological and information distribution landscape over the years.

For example, in the early 2000s, CDs and DVDs were en vogue, and these storage devices loaded with foreign content were being smuggled into North Korea. Second-hand and cheap DVD players from China flooded the North Korean markets, and North Koreans bought these machines to play their DVDs loaded with knockoff copies of movies and shows. Chinese-made ‘notels’ rose in popularity inside North Korea around 2005.

North Korean people have been finding ways to evade government detection in order to watch and listen to what they want, despite the steep risks involved

These multi-media electronic devices catch television waves and radio waves, can play DVDs, and have USB and micro SD portals.  Despite harsh crackdowns, the notels became so popular in North Korea that the government legalized them in 2014 in attempt to monitor and control the spread of these devices.  

The Link between Marketization and Media

The marketization of North Korea is inextricably tied with the dissemination of information. With the majority of North Korean households depending on trade and market activity to support themselves by supplementing their paltry government income, unofficial markets across the country have grown and become diverse in their product and service offerings.  

north korea shop photo

The country’s growing market economy is boosting information exchange | Photo by (stephan)

Depending on the data set, there is an estimated 400-750 markets that each comprise hundreds of stalls. Some market stalls are even taxed, which indicate a level of government permissiveness. Many of the markets have underground currency exchange stalls.  

What used to be the black market in the 1990s has evolved into a gray market, given the sheer scale of the markets and the pseudo-legal status of many of the markets. But there does exist a black market with explicitly banned goods within the gray market: banned media and information is part of the black market.  

One can buy anything and everything in a North Korean market. As a new South Korean drama quietly circulates among trusted friends in a North Korean town, the trendy styles in the drama would spring up in the street markets. If glittery hair bands were the trend, say, they would suddenly be available for sale.

Why do such seemingly small acts matter?

So, why do these seemingly small acts of watching films, imitating fashion trends of pretty female protagonists, and whispering about the latest soap operas with classmates matter? The new generation of North Korean people who grew up depending on street markets and watching foreign films have a fundamentally different relationship with the state and Kim Jong-Un than compared to that of their grandparents and Kim Il-Sung.

The marketization of North Korea is inextricably tied with the dissemination of information

Since they are increasingly risk-taking, individualistic, and savvy, the young people today know how to follow the rules while skirting the less important ones. They know what to say in self-criticism classes and how to properly bow to statues and dutifully clean the portraits of their leaders all the while knowing not to depend on the ‘all-generous’ leader for food and clothing, and not to wholeheartedly respect the state.

Citizens are living in two realities – the official North Korean state-sanctioned reality, and the more capitalistic reality – and they are determined to continue to learn about the world outside North Korea.