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.
How A North Korean Defector Sends Money Back Home
It may seem like North and South Korea are completely cut off from each other, but even after decades of separation, channels of communication persist. Defectors who have made it to freedom are bridging the gap, connecting people inside North Korea to the world beyond. Through extensive broker networks, they send back money and information, accelerating change in the world’s most authoritarian country.
Through this process known as remittances, millions of dollars are sent into the country every year, representing huge spending power. Here’s how they do it!
Reconnecting with Family
To send money back home, North Korean refugees must first contact their families. They hire brokers to find their relatives and arrange illicit phone calls close to the border with China, where smuggled Chinese cell phones can connect to international networks. In North Korea, people are often wary of such brokers, so they may have to be convinced with codewords or childhood nicknames that only the family would know, or recognizable handwriting and photos.
To avoid being caught, contact is often made from the mountain at night, or using a series of text or voice messages sent through apps like Wechat and quickly deleted. When the call finally happens, it can be emotional for both sides.
“You hear someone say, ‘Okay you’re connected, you can speak now.’ But no one says anything to each other. You just hear a high-pitched tone, and silence. Could this be real? You’re just crying, and can’t even speak.”
– Miso, escaped North Korea in 2010
How Remittances Work
There are different ways to send money to North Korea, but a simple version involves three parties: A North Korean resettled in South Korea, a remittance broker in North Korea, and the recipient in North Korea.
- A resettled North Korean, makes a request to a remittance broker to arrange a transfer. They wire money to a Chinese account controlled by that broker.
- The remittance broker in North Korea uses a smuggled Chinese phone to confirm receipt of the funds.
- After taking a hefty commission, they give cash to the refugee’s family. The family can confirm receipt of the money by sending a photo, video, or voice message back, so the sender can be confident that they’ve not been scammed.
With this process, the remittance broker in North Korea occasionally needs to replenish their cash on hand. This could happen through the physical smuggling of cash, but oftentimes money from their Chinese bank account is used to buy goods in China that are then sold in North Korea, generating cash. In this way, physical money never actually has to cross borders.
The Power to Change Lives
North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, whereas South Korea is one of the richest. Therefore remittances from relatives in South Korea or elsewhere can be absolutely transformative. The money is spent on almost everything, including food, clothing, shoes, medicine, housing, transport, and bribes to keep the family safe.
“I’ve sent money back to North Korea ever since I resettled in South Korea. I send an average of $1,500 a year. My parents used the money to buy a house! They’re also going to use it to help my younger brother escape and come to South Korea.”
– Jeonghyuk, resettled North Korean refugee
With new resources also comes new opportunities. North Koreans who never had the means before can now think about starting a business at the Jangmadang, or market. Since the collapse of the regime’s socialist economy in the 1990s, the markets have become essential to making a living. The flow of remittances is increasing trade, food security, marketization, and entrepreneurship, empowering ordinary North Koreans to gain autonomy.
A Ripple Effect
Along with money, North Korean refugees send back news and information from the outside world. At first, family members back home may not want to hear about life beyond the border. Decades of propaganda villainizing the outside world can be difficult to overcome, and if caught in communication with defectors, they could face serious punishment.
But as money continues to flow in, many people can’t help but be curious- what do their relatives outside do to make a living? What kind of house do they live in? Is life there like the K-dramas smuggled into North Korea? Conversely, defectors ask their family members, what they can do with the money in North Korea? This exchange of information is incredibly valuable, providing a glimpse into the most closed society on earth.
The flow of information into North Korea erodes the regime’s propaganda and changes worldviews. As the people learn more about the wealth and opportunities of the outside world, some may also risk their lives to escape. Money sent from remittances can also be used to fund this dangerous journey.
“When I first contacted my family back in North Korea after I resettled in South Korea, they didn’t believe that I was doing well here. My parents even resented me a little for leaving. But after I sent them money and told them more about my life here, their views changed. Now they realize that the regime has been lying to them and they’re not as loyal anymore. I have become a pioneer of freedom to my family back in North Korea.”
– Jo Eun, rescued by LiNK in 2017
Agents of Change
Remittances are about more than just the movement of money. Refugees who have been separated from their families aren’t able to go back home themselves, but can still care for their loved ones in some way. Every phone call into the country and every dollar sent back represents one small step towards the day when the North Korean people finally achieve their freedom.
More than 33,000 North Korean refugees have made it to freedom, and although it has become more difficult during the pandemic, surveys report that 65.7% have sent money back to North Korea. At LiNK, we’re committed to working with and building the capacity of North Korean refugees so they can succeed in their new lives and make an even bigger impact in their communities and on this issue.