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.
North Korean Refugee Rescues: An Update from Our Field Manager
Over the past few years, the impact of COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the day-to-day lives of North Korean people. Pandemic-related border lockdowns, increased surveillance, and unprecedented restrictions made it impossible for North Koreans to escape and reach freedom.
After a painstakingly long pause on rescues, at the end of 2022 we were finally able to start moving people safely again. Our field team has worked tirelessly to establish new, viable routes and adapt to circumstances on the ground. Navigating unprecedented restrictions and developing new routes has led to significantly higher and extremely volatile rescue costs, but our commitment is stronger than ever to help North Korean refugees reach freedom.
We recently sat down with our field manager, Jennifer* to hear directly about the current needs, challenges, and potential of this new era of rescues.
Could you give us a general overview of the situation in China?
So much has changed since the start of the pandemic. Activists have been kicked out of the country; brokers no longer want to do this work because of the increased surveillance and restrictions. The number of underground rescue networks has shrunk significantly. Navigating these challenges puts us at higher risk, which means that we have to use more resources, including people on the ground, to guarantee that our groups move safely. Because of the increased costs, we soon might have to ask people to wait to be rescued and it’s agonizing, especially because timing is critical in the underground railroad. There are very few moments when everything aligns and it is safe to travel, but because we don’t have funds, North Korean refugees lose those rare, precious opportunities. The North Koreans I’ve been in communication with are living in constant fear because of the increased use of security technology by the state, such as facial recognition with AI. On top of that, domestic violence continues to be a serious issue for many North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married in China.
Is there a risk of being sent back to North Korea right now?
Refugees who are caught in China are forcibly sent back to North Korea where they are severely punished. However, because of the pandemic, North Korea sealed its borders in January 2020 and has yet to reopen them. This means that repatriation hasn’t been possible yet, but we are hearing rumors that North Korea will start receiving people again soon.
Many people who have tried to escape were arrested and we’ve heard that currently, there are a large number of North Korean refugees in Chinese prisons.
What kind of situations are people escaping from in China?
It’s mostly North Korean women who were trafficked or forcibly married to Chinese men. Some have been living in China for several years and the pandemic left them stranded with no way to escape. We had heard that some of these women were facing even worse treatment from their Chinese husbands than before. The people who arrived in China in 2019 or early 2020 only had a very short period of time to learn the language, culture, and to adjust before having to quarantine. It has been much more difficult for these people to try to escape from China.
More recently, some of the refugees we’re in communication with have serious health issues. But they can’t go to the hospital because they’re not Chinese citizens and would risk being arrested and sent back to North Korea. They are hoping to make it to South Korea to get the healthcare they need.
And what are some of the challenges that North Koreans in China face day-to-day?
They can’t go outside. There was already a lack of freedom to travel and move around freely before the pandemic, but it has only gotten worse since then. When I speak with them, it feels like they’re losing hope. The reality of how difficult and expensive the journey has become is discouraging, especially because they hear about people who attempted the journey and were caught and arrested. So for people who were connected with us recently, many were shocked to hear about our work. They said it was almost surreal because they didn’t think it was possible to get to freedom at this time.
What motivated these people to leave North Korea in the first place?
It’s different depending on the person. There are usually personal circumstances that lead them to look for better opportunities in China or South Korea. Many people are tricked into human trafficking. Some women choose to live with a Chinese husband of their own will. They believe it’s better to live in China in this way rather than live in North Korea.
What have been the biggest challenges for you?
While I'm very grateful that we've been able to resume rescues, it's a shame that we can only move a limited number of people due to increased costs and heightened security. I stay in close contact with refugees in China who are hoping to reach freedom, and some are in urgent situations. A woman who was 4 months pregnant had to make the journey before her belly got too big. Some refugees have health conditions that need immediate treatment, but they’re unable to go to the hospital. My hope is that we can rescue as many people as possible so they can experience freedom and live the full lives that they deserve.
Since restarting rescues last December, the significant increase in costs have depleted our rescue and resettlement funds, leaving many North Korean refugees waiting, once again, for an opportunity to escape. Your support is needed now more than ever.
Throughout the month of June, all one time gifts made here will go 100% towards our rescue and resettlement efforts. In honor of World Refugee Day 2023 and the countless people waiting for their rare and precious opportunity to reach freedom, give a gift today.
*Jennifer is a pseudonym used to protect our field manager’s identity and avoid compromising this work.