After the collapse of the state-controlled economy in the 1990s, people had to separate themselves from the state, get creative, and engage in market activities to survive. The markets gradually grew to encompass a broader range of goods and services, including technologies and media content that exposed North Koreans to new information and ideas. Markets also provide a rare gathering space that can act as a forum for news, rumours and ideas to be spread by word-of-mouth. A refugee once told me that she knew more than most people simply because she was heavily involved in market activities, so she got to meet and interact with a lot of different people.
Another effect of marketization is that corruption is now rampant in North Korea. In fact, many of those charged with enforcing the law rely on bribes to make a living. Refugees tell us that in North Korea “there is nothing you can’t do with money.” With regards to North Korea’s changing media environment, this means that if you have a bit of money earned through market activities, you have a chance to escape punishment even if you are caught watching foreign DVDs. There is also corruption in the sense that those charged with enforcing and upholding the law are reportedly some of the biggest consumers of foreign media. A defector who was well-connected in NK explained to me that he felt relatively safe watching foreign media because the people he watched with were fairly high level Party officials, making them almost immune from punishment. It should be noted however that even though corruption provides a potential escape route, North Koreans are still very cautious and scared of being punished for such activities. Another refugee told me that they had personally seen someone being executed for “watching a film from an enemy country.”
The influx of new technologies is also driving North Korea’s changing media environment. It is possible to buy cheap DVD players coming in from China for around 20 dollars. DVDs themselves are available for less than a dollar and can even be rented (they are of course all bootlegged DVDs, not the kind you buy from Target!). This means that anyone with a bit of money to spare has a DVD player, but of course those who are struggling just to survive don’t worry about things like watching foreign media. USB drives are also growing in popularity, and are used with computers and with newer DVD players that have a USB input port. This makes it easier to share and watch foreign media without being detected, because USB drives are so easy to conceal and also because when the inspection teams come to search for people watching foreign media they often turn the power off in your residential block. If you have a foreign DVD then it will get stuck inside your DVD player, but if you are using a USB drive then you can easily pull it out and hide it. USBs are also preferred because illegal content can easily be deleted after watching it. I spoke with a young North Korean man who carried three USB sticks around with him when he was in North Korea. He would delete South Korean or American content quickly after watching it because the consequences of being caught would be more severe, but with films from China, Hong Kong or Russia he felt safer keeping the files for longer. New technologies like MP3 and MP4 players, and laptops (for the economic elites that can afford them) are even helping North Koreans overcome the age-old problem of regular power-cuts, which still constrains the amount of television that can be watched.
Mobile phones are also becoming more prevalent in North Korea. There are legal phones on the koryolink network that can only be used for domestic calls, but there are also the illegal Chinese mobile phones that are used in areas close enough to the Chinese border to get signal from Chinese mobile phone masts, and these phones can be used to call contacts in China or even in South Korea. Anyone engaged in smuggling or business with China now has such a phone, and many of those with relatives who have already defected to South Korea also own a phone or have access to one. This is creating a crucial direct line of communication with the outside world, although again the risks of using these illegal phones are high, which limits their use.
Ironically, the changing media landscape of North Korea is also partially a direct result of the regime’s own policies. The regime has intentionally promoted new technologies like DVDs (e.g. this KCNA video) as part of their propaganda efforts to show that North Korea is advancing technologically under their current governance system, with no need to reform. Such technologies are elevated and celebrated in society despite the long term threat that they may pose to the regime (see Lankov on NK’s “technological fetishism” for more on this phenomenon).
The incredibly boring nature of state media also inadvertently drives the proliferation of DVD players and the consumption of foreign media, according to our refugee friends. Televisions are ubiquitous in North Korea – in InterMedia’s research, ¾ of respondents had televisions. However if state media only reports on Kim Jong-un making a visit to this army base or that factory, or shows repeats of propaganda films (where – spoiler alert – North Korea wins every time), then people are bound to be hungry for more interesting content from the outside world. This seems to be supported by InterMedia’s finding that many people who had access to North Korea’s Joongang TV did not watch regularly (51% had watched it ever but only 14% watched it weekly) while people who had access to foreign channels did watch regularly (18% had access to Chinese TV and 15% watched weekly, while 4% had access to South Korean TV and that 4% all watched it weekly).
Many North Korean refugees who lived in range of Chinese TV signals have told us that they watched Chinese TV even if it was in Chinese and they didn’t understand it, just to get a glimpse of something from the outside world. Refugees report that punishment for watching Chinese broadcasts may be confiscation of your TV, whereas if you are caught watching South Korean DVDs they might exile you to a different (and worse) part of the country. With this level of demand for foreign media and people’s increasing ability to escape punishment through corruption and new technologies, South Korean dramas and films can get passed around pretty quickly amongst trusted contacts. Compared to North Korean state media, the average South Korean drama is like watching The Avengers in IMAX 3D. Well, almost…
SOKEEL J. PARK | Research & Strategy Analyst