North Koreans are increasingly able to access global media and other information, loosening the communist regime’s grip on their knowledge and potentially bringing far-reaching changes to the so-called hermit kingdom.
Interviews with refugees, travelers and defectors reveal that North Koreans are using illegal Chinese mobile phones, DVDs, computers and small flash drives to get around official barriers to outside information, according to a report released today. The interviews, conducted by the Washington-based consulting group InterMedia, show an “extraordinary” broadening of the information environment since the 1990s, said Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington-based policy center.
North Korea has long sealed itself off from the world, with an official state ideology of juche, or self-reliance, and a narrative that pits a resilient regime against a hostile world. That portrayal, and the isolation that has allowed it to flourish, are beginning to crack as new information penetrates the North, InterMedia said.
“Positive perceptions of the outside world can call into question many of the North Korean regime’s most central propaganda narratives, which legitimate the regime by portraying it as the country’s protector from hostile outside forces,” according to the report.
Titled “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment,” the report was funded by the U.S. State Department.
“The bottom line of this report is that ultimately North Korea is losing control,” said Abraham Kim, vice president of the Korean Economic Institute, a Washington-based research group. “Losing control of what its people are listening to and seeing, and losing control of how people are thinking about their socioeconomic position, the regime and the outside world.”
Dan Baer, a deputy assistant secretary at the State Department, said that his agency wanted to use the report’s findings to “develop new, creative ways to support” ordinary North Koreans “and enhance their access to information.” He said he hoped the findings would also provide non-governmental groups working on North Korea with new ideas.
Perhaps the most important tool for cracking the regime’s hermetic shell is radio, with its broadcasts of real-time outside news, said Martyn Williams, the blogger behind NorthKoreaTech.org, at a panel discussion of the report. He recounted meeting a former North Korean soldier whose eventual decision to defect arose after he stumbled onto a Voice of America broadcast.
“When he found out that he could fiddle with radios to pick up broadcasts from other countries, he started listening to VOA, Radio Free Asia,” and South Korean radio, Williams said. “That helped educate him and ultimately helped motivate him to escape from his world.”
The report said that the changes taking place in North Korea so far are “very small” and there is little hope for any near-term grassroots “pushback” against the regime headed by Kim Jong Un, grandson of state founder Kim Il Sung. Still, the developments “are illustrative of a potential long-term trajectory for change,” the report found.
Growing media use “is not just an elite story or just a youth story,” said Noland, who blogs about North Korea. “Middle-aged people were even more intense consumers,” he said today at the panel presentation.
As appetites grow for foreign media, there appear to be gaps in the government’s ability to block it, said Williams. He said that from mid- to late February, there were “entire days” when North Korea stopped jamming signals of incoming radio broadcasts.
Because the government usually blocks signals of about a dozen channels for as much as 18 hours a day, analysts suspect either electricity shortages or technical problems allowed the signals through, Williams said.
The report’s conclusions come as Kim Jong Un, who succeeded his late father in December, called for harnessing the Internet to collect technology from abroad.
“We must use the Internet to find more data on international trends and advanced science and technology from other countries,” Kim said, according to a segment on North Korea state television broadcast May 8.
Unauthorized accessing of foreign media by North Koreans is illegal, and harsh punishments are meted out for those caught doing so, the report’s authors said. Even so, InterMedia said, breaking those laws seems to be more “normalized.”
‘Nascent Seeds’ of Change
The report also found “the increase in media access has been accompanied by an increasing willingness among North Koreans to share information with those they trust.”
Bonds created by shared prohibited behavior are a breeding ground for ideas that go beyond -- or even run counter to -- the regime’s version of reality. “In these most nascent seeds of civil society lies the potential for continued change on the ground level in the lives of ordinary North Koreans,” the authors said.
The elites have the greatest exposure to outside media, with computers, USB drives and illegal Chinese mobile phones entering the country in substantial numbers, according to the report. The study identified DVDs as the most commonly accessed form of outside media. DVDs of South Korean films show the South’s prosperity and quality of life.
Human Rights Record
The increased media penetration may explain why the normally secretive leadership chose to invite foreign media to watch its April 12 missile launch and then, after it disintegrated over the Yellow Sea, admitted the failure publicly.
Those living along the militarized Chinese and South Korean borders are also able to access foreign television shows. There is no satellite penetration of North Korea, said Nathaniel Kretchun, who authored the report with Jane Kim.
North Korea, one of the world’s most militarized countries, is consistently ranked by groups such as Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International as having the worst human rights record and least free media in the world.