North Koreans have access to more foreign media and alternative sources of information than ever before. The people are learning more about the outside world, and this is affecting attitudes. The cat is out of the bag; they cannot unlearn what they have learnt, and all signs are that this ‘education in reality’ will only continue.
Even the state’s propaganda is being forced to change because of the greater awareness North Koreans now have of the outside world. North Korean state media used to portray South Korea as a destitute country, poorer than their socialist paradise (actually, there was a time when the North was the richer half of the peninsula). Now that so many people have become aware of South Korea’s prosperity, the regime no longer tries to run with this line of propaganda and they have moved on to other criticisms of South Korea for instance, that the South is corrupt and is submissive to the U.S. Refugees tell us that the only source that still claims South Korea is poorer than North Korea are children’s school textbooks. Apparently no one in the Ministry of Education has dared to suggest updating the curriculum to reflect how rich South Korea has become!
The InterMedia report also says North Koreans are now gathering with others to watch illegal DVDs, again confirming what we have been told by refugees that have left in the last couple of years. A small number of friends gathering to watch foreign DVDs may not seem like a big deal, but in the North Korean context it is hugely significant. The finding that people are becoming less likely to report on each other is also important, as well as encouraging. Authoritarian regimes often rely on a society-wide system of snitches and informants to keep people’s everyday behaviour in check and to generate a pervading sense of fear of getting on the wrong side of the regime. A breakdown of this system and the strengthening of trust among ordinary people could create the conditions that would empower the North Korean people to push for change in the long term.
We may even imagine a potential ‘spiral of anti-regime virtuosity’. Access to foreign media piques interest and drives hunger for more foreign content, which drives the trade, sharing and discussion of foreign information between trusted contacts. This shared participation in illegal activities leads to mutual dependence, trust building and the normalisation of such activities within communities, which results in people reporting on each other less. In turn this encourages further sharing and private discussion and the strengthening of bonds between the people. Ultimately this could result in a growing civil space for the people, separate from the regime.
Increasing the amount of discussion that happens around new information is key because, as the InterMedia report notes, discussion amplifies the effect that foreign information has on attitudes. Humans are social beings after all, and interacting with others and discussing issues and ideas has a crucial role in helping people develop new opinions and ways of understanding the world. So again, signs of the reversal of the regime’s intentional “atomization” of North Korean society – preventing the formation of links between people – points to the potential for further change inside the country in the future.
It is also worth noting that young North Korean refugees that I have spoken with have reported that foreign media is particularly popular with young North Koreans. One man in his early 20s told me that “all young North Koreans watch foreign DVDs now!” (He was of course exaggerating a bit.) He watched foreign media whenever he could get his hands on a DVD or a USB with foreign content on it, and said that young North Koreans don’t watch North Korean films at all now. These North Koreans in their 20s are the “Jangmadang Generation” (jangmadang translates to market); they grew up in the 90s and 2000s and the only North Korea that they remember is post-collapse of the state controlled economy. They have grown up in an era where the people are increasingly separate from the state, official ideology is increasingly hollow, and the influence of outside information is growing. It is no surprise that these young North Koreans are particularly interested in South Korean dramas and music and foreign films.
The grassroots changes happening inside North Korea provide those on the outside with opportunities to encourage these trends and help empower the North Korean people by increasing their access to a variety of sources of objective information. As the North Korean people become increasingly aware of the freedoms and prosperity of the outside world, and learn more about the reality of life elsewhere (good and bad) and about their own country and government, their universe of possibilities is massively expanded. They will be increasingly grounded in a better awareness of a wider reality and will therefore become more empowered to judge and think independently. This will be crucial for accelerating the changes already happening inside the country and ultimately for changing the whole country of North Korea for the better in the long term.
SOKEEL J. PARK | Research & Strategy Analyst