One of the major tools that the North Korean ruling elite has used to subjugate ordinary North Koreans for so many decades is its monopoly as the single source of information and ideas in the country. It has gone to great lengths to maintain this monopoly by blocking information from the outside, and by preventing people from communicating their own information and ideas to each other through preventing free speech and communication. This denial of different sources of information and the dominance of North Korean culture through a single line of state propaganda has been extremely disempowering to ordinary North Koreans.
Therefore, a breakdown of that monopoly and control is a hugely significant part of changing North Korea.
InterMedia’s new report, funded by the U.S. State Department – “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment” available for download here – provides an essential and excellent update on the technologies that are breaking through the regime’s information blockade, and insight into how this is changing North Korea. The report confirms and expounds on a lot of what refugees who have recently left the country tell us about the growth of new sources of information inside the country. I would absolutely recommend reading the report itself, but below I will note some of the key findings. In a couple of subsequent posts I will add some context on the reasons behind and effects of the changes in North Korea’s media and technology landscape.
North Korea is still the most closed media environment in the world, but North Koreans have significantly greater access to outside information than they did 20 years ago.
Foreign media is causing people to have increasingly favourable views of the outside world.
Radio is the only foreign source of real-time news and constantly updated information which is available nationwide. Listening to foreign radio broadcasts is more dangerous than watching foreign TV or DVDs.
Televisions are ubiquitous. TV broadcasts from South Korea and China are watched by those close enough to the border to pick up the signal.
Foreign DVDs were used by nearly half the respondents in a 2010 survey. This was up from just 20% two years earlier.
DVD as ‘gateway drug’. When people gain access to smuggled DVDs containing South Korean dramas, they become more interested in the outside world and become more likely to seek other forms of information including foreign radio broadcasts and foreign films. The red pill is addictive!
USBs are growing in popularity amongst those that can afford them. They make foreign content easier to conceal and share.
Punishment for accessing outside media remains severe, but enforcement is irregular and somewhat arbitrary. People with the means can often bribe their way out of trouble.
Motivation for consuming foreign media is diverse, including mere curiosity, entertainment, psychological comfort, collecting business information, and collecting information about defecting.
A variety of sources of information are needed so they can complement and reinforce each other. It is also important to have diverse content tailored to the needs and tastes of different audiences inside North Korea.
Demand for foreign media continues to greatly outpace supply.
SOKEEL J. PARK | Research & Strategy Analyst