Foreign Media in North Korea - How Kpop is Challenging the Regime
Movies, TV shows, and music hold power. They’re a way for us to connect through common experiences, reckon with different sides of humanity, and revel in the beauty of being here at all. They transport us to another time and place- perhaps one of our imaginations- and most importantly, allow us to dream and imagine a limitless future.
In recent years, South Korean media and entertainment has gained international recognition. People like Hyun Bin and Son Yejin, the stars of popular Korean drama Crash Landing on You, have become household names, while Parasite swept the 2020 Academy Awards and music from K-pop groups like BTS are charting globally.
Meanwhile, just across the border, North Korea remains one of the most closed societies in the world. Yet even in the “hermit kingdom,” foreign media is accelerating empowerment of the people and change within the country!
Forced Isolation and the Regime’s Information Monopoly
The North Korean government has maintained power for decades through a system of imposed isolation, relentless indoctrination, and brutal repression. A complete monopoly on information and ideas within the country has been key- outside media threatens to challenge the legitimacy of their propaganda, and by extension, their control.
The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea reported an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as well as of the rights to freedom of speech, opinion, expression, and association.
The regime employs a range of strategies to enforce information control:
- Restricting movement across borders and within the country
- Random house searches
- Severe punishment, including public executions, to deter foreign media consumption and sharing
- Sophisticated digital surveillance
- Jamming phone signals and locating users through signal triangulation
- Mobile OS file signature system that only permits government-approved apps and files
The Spread of Foreign Media
Despite this isolation and unparalleled internal restrictions, the North Korean people have been quietly changing their country from within, including through foreign media access. Through market activity and the movement of people and goods across the Chinese border, they have forced the gradual opening up of their society. Movies and music are smuggled into the country on USBs, SD and MicroSD cards, and small portable media players, offering illicit access to information from the outside world.
With lights off and windows shuttered, North Koreans will watch foreign media despite the risks. If all else fails, bribes are a way for people to reduce punishment if caught. Most North Korean police and government officials rely on bribes to survive, and some defectors complain that they are actually the biggest consumers of foreign media because they confiscate so much.
Information Technology in North Korea
Within North Korea, a broad range of information technologies are available, although they should be registered with authorities. Laptops and computers officially run on a government operating system, Red Star OS, while the North Korean intranet, Kwangmyong, is air-gapped from the internet and heavily surveilled. However, in practice, many North Koreans have non-networked devices used for games, editing software, watching videos, and to copy, delete and transfer media on removable devices.
Mobile phones are also common with approximately 6 million on the North Korean network, meaning roughly 1 in 4 people have one. These North Korean phones generally cannot make international calls and the operating system limits users to approved state media (programs have been developed to bypass this security). On the other hand, smuggled Chinese phones can be used in border regions on the Chinese network. These have been crucial for staying in touch with relatives who have escaped or defected, who often send back money and information from the outside world.
Radios are the only channel of foreign media and news available real-time across the country. While they should officially be registered and fixed to North Korean stations, it is relatively easy to tamper with radio sets to pick up foreign broadcasts. In border regions, some TVs can also pick up live programming from South Korea and China. Traditionally, TVs were connected to DVD players, but newer LCD televisions also have direct USB input ports.
How Foreign Media Changes Perceptions
Among foreign media, entertainment from South Korea is particularly attractive, produced in the same base language by people with the same ancestry. They contain glimpses of rich and free realities just across the border. In comparison, domestic North Korean media seems old-fashioned and disingenuous, designed to reinforce the regime’s ideologies.
As North Koreans learn more about life, freedom and prosperity in the outside world, and their own relative poverty, the regime’s ideology and control are eroded.
“At first you see the cars, apartment buildings, and markets and you think it must be a movie set. But the more you watch, there’s no way it can be just a set. If you watch one or two [movies] it always raises these doubts, and if you keep watching you know for sure. You realize how well South Koreans and other foreigners live.”
– Danbi, escaped North Korea in 2011
Empowered by foreign media, North Koreans are exploring their creativity and potential through everyday acts of resistance- using South Korean slang, copying fashion styles, and sharing pop culture references. In this culture war, Kim Jong-un has called for crackdowns on "unsavory, individualistic, anti-socialist behavior" among young people to restrict freedom of expression.
Foreign media also facilitates shared acts of resistance. People will swap USB devices with trusted friends and neighbors, increasing confidence in one another through a symmetrical transaction. Some people may also watch and discuss movies and shows together, increasing the media’s subversive influence and creating social networks.
The Regime’s Response
During the pandemic, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of isolation and restrictions, closing off the country more than ever before. To buttress control, Kim Jong Un has simultaneously increased crackdowns and punishments on foreign media consumption. In December 2020, the “anti-reactionary thought law” made watching foreign media punishable by 15 years in a political prison camp.
While the situation is harrowing, the government’s extreme response underscores the power of foreign media. The regime recognizes that social changes driven by North Korean people are a threat to their authority and control in the long term.
Accelerating Foreign Media Access and Change
Moving forward, increasing access to outside information is one of the most effective ways to help the North Korean people and bring forward change.
Information and technology support for North Korean people has historically been an under-utilized and under-invested strategy. LiNK Labs is our area of work focused on this opportunity- we’re developing technologies, networks, and content to empower North Korean people with access to information and ideas from the outside world.
Time Travelers: North Korean Defectors Resettling in South Korea
To reach freedom, North Korean defectors typically brave a perilous 3,000 mile journey through China and Southeast Asia. But even after finally reaching safety, they face a long road ahead as they begin their new lives.
The majority of North Korean refugees have resettled in South Korea. Many describe the transition like stepping out of a time machine, 50 years into the future. In addition to learning about things like the internet and ATMs, getting used to their newfound freedom alone can be a lot to grasp after decades of living in the world’s most authoritarian country.
A new journey, one of restoration, discovery, and adjustment, begins.
When North Korean refugees first reach South Korea, they go through a thorough debrief process with the National Intelligence Service to verify their background. From there, the Hanawon Settlement Support Center helps them ease into modern South Korean society.
Every defector must complete a three month adjustment program, which covers:
- Basic skills, like how to open a bank account and use the Internet
- Job and vocational training
- Field trips to shops, food courts, and other businesses
- The social and cultural differences between North and South Korea
- The history of the Korean peninsula
After completing the program, refugees receive government benefits to begin their new lives, including an initial subsidy, housing support, and healthcare.
South Korean Culture Shock
Emerging from Hanawon, North Korean refugees often experience culture shock when they find themselves fully immersed in South Korean society.
One of the first things many notice is the abundance of greenery and trees compared to North Korea. While the entire Korean peninsula was severely deforested by the mid-20th century, South Korea is one of the world’s few reforestation success stories.
Many defectors are also surprised by how safe South Korea is. One person can manage a big market stall on their own and not worry about theft, whereas goods have to be closely guarded at North Korea’s Jangmadangs. Other new experiences include the widespread availability of clothing and existence of vending machines and mannequins.
While the South Korean government provides material support, many North Korean refugees still face challenges starting over in a very different society. Just navigating daily life can be difficult at first, and making longer-term decisions like what to study or finding a stable job can be even more overwhelming.
“When I first arrived in South Korea, I was confused and didn’t know where to even start my new life in freedom. I wasn’t even sure who I was as a person.”
– Geumju, escaped North Korea in 2008
At school, additional study may be needed to catch up with their South Korean peers after decades of propaganda-based learning. In the workforce, many refugees have to retrain and re-qualify for the same jobs they had in the North, such as doctors and teachers. These discrepancies have contributed to an income gap between North and South Koreans in South Korea’s hyper competitive society.
In addition to figuring out the future, many refugees are still coping with physical and mental health issues from a traumatic past. A lack of healthcare in North Korea often results in decades of unaddressed medical and dental problems. Roughly 50% of North Korean refugees also suffer from PTSD. Many had to leave loved ones behind, witnessed or experienced torture, or survived trafficking, which can be tough to process.
Finding Community & Onward
Forming new relationships in South Korea can be one of the biggest challenges for defectors. In North Korea, lack of mobility and aspects of life organized by the regime meant that everyone in a neighborhood knew each other. To meet up with someone, it was commonplace to just stop by their home. In comparison, South Korea’s decentralized “yaksok” (promise) culture of scheduling a time and place to meet specific people may feel unfamiliar and take extra effort.
Refugees may also not want to reveal that they’re from North Korea or can have trouble sharing past experiences. Some may also experience prejudice against North Koreans for their accent or stereotypes, such as being uneducated or untrustworthy.
Overall, although life in freedom brings many advantages and benefits, it comes with some unexpected challenges. Before their escape, North Koreans may have only heard good things or focused on the positives. Moving to a foreign place and building a new life from scratch is difficult for anyone, and can be especially challenging for North Korean refugees.
Impact of the Pandemic
During the pandemic, refugee numbers have been at an all time low. Unprecedented restrictions on movement and surveillance have made the journey through China and Southeast Asia almost impossible.
On the resettlement side, refugees have also struggled as some support programs were scaled back or cut altogether. Many have felt especially lonely during this time or found it difficult to work towards their goals.
Agents of Change
Despite all odds, North Korean refugees are some of the most powerful examples of human resilience. When they have the support they need to successfully resettle in freedom, they can become some of the most effective agents of change on this issue.
Defectors are embracing and taking pride in their identity, sharing their stories on the global stage as YouTubers, entrepreneurs, and advocates. When they reclaim the narrative on North Koreans, they directly challenge the regime’s portrayal of their country.
North Korean refugees also have the unique opportunity to affect change inside North Korea through remittances. Many maintain contact with their home communities and send money back to their families, helping people inside and accelerating change at the ground level.
The Support of a Movement
Reaching freedom is just the first step. LiNK is dedicated to working with North Korean refugees to help build their capacity and realize their full potential in their new lives! We do this by:
- Organizing workshops for entrepreneurship, advocacy, and more
- Facilitating a 1:1 English tutoring program
- Sponsoring scholarships for North Korean students pursuing higher education
- Providing a community of ongoing support and resources
“I’m touched by LiNK’s supporters. I can feel their genuine heart. Before I learned more about LiNK, I just thought that I came out through a rescue network. I never imagined that so many people have been rooting for us and that it’s a bigger movement than just rescues. Now that I know all of you helped us with kind hearts, I want to succeed and do good things for others in South Korea.”
– Yuna, escaped through LiNK’s networks and resettled in 2021