Getting Outside Information Past Big Brother in North Korea
South Korean-inspired hairdos, slang, and dances are becoming increasingly popular in North Korea. While that might not sound like a pressing security threat to most people, Chairman Kim Jong Un is not like most people. His regime believes that these superficial expressions represent a deeper well of social change that corrodes socialist culture and undermines the country’s ideological conformity.
The stakes are getting higher for information flows into North Korea: Despite the risk of severe punishments, many North Koreans secretly consume information and entertainment from the outside world. For its part, the government in Pyongyang views outside information as a threat to the regime because it disabuses the people of beliefs planted by state propaganda and enables them to compare their living conditions to those of the outside world.
Will outside ideas have the power to transform North Korea in the way Kim fears? Or will Kim succeed in his quest to stomp them out and ensure that the young generation become “the heroes and builders for the future of socialism”?
In our view, the best hope for peaceful, long-term change lies in helping North Koreans to become more knowledgeable about their own country and the outside world. This could plant the seeds for a civil society that could eventually favor rapprochement over indefinite hostility and improve protections for human rights. North Koreans are hungry for information and the outside world is taking measures to help, but the country’s authoritarian government won’t sit idly by. While the Kim regime strives to seal off the country, the outside world should augment information access by utilizing new methods and technologies, and provide both elites and ordinary people with objective reporting, useful information, and entertainment.
How North Koreans Get Access to Foreign Ideas and Information
North Korea is attempting to complement its COVID-19 border closures by firming up its ideological blockade. The country’s foreign ministry accused Western governments of conducting “false propaganda using mass media and modern information and communication tools” to “interfere” in sovereign states’ internal affairs. It also criticized the U.S. State Department’s annual press statement on North Korea Freedom Week, which explained that America will continue to raise awareness on North Korea’s “egregious human rights situation,” and “support access to independent information.” In addition, Kim Yo Jong, sister of leader Kim Jong Un, warned defectors in South Korea to stop scattering leaflets across the border.
A more informed population might end up undermining the domestic loyalty that has become all the more critical for the Kim regime’s goal to achieve “self-reliance” in the face of prolonged sanctions and a steep reduction in trade during the pandemic. More fundamentally, a populace enlightened about the goings-on of the outside world poses a threat to the legitimacy of Kim’s rule and his ability to exert control. Understanding this, his regime has ratcheted up crackdowns on illicit streams of information and is vying to reverse the dramatic social changes that have already resulted from them. But can he succeed?
In the mid-1990s, a devastating famine struck North Korea, forcing the government to loosen restrictions at the border. As a result, North Koreans were in contact with an unprecedented influx of ideas and products from the outside world. Entertainment and news media in the form of thumb drives, micro memory cards, DVDs, and pirate radio broadcasts, all began circulating through illicit networks of importers and sharers in North Korea. This was especially remarkable since North Koreans were and still are severely punished for spreading information that has not been vetted and filtered by the North Korean Workers’ Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department.
An array of international organizations disseminate material across the border into North Korea, distributing content that is often curated by North Korean defectors. Many of these organizations have the support of the U.S. government, which is authorized to spend $3 million per year to increase “the availability of sources of information not controlled by the Government of North Korea.” In 2020, the National Endowment for Democracy funded initiatives to broadcast medium-wave radio programs into North Korea, help to identify new methods and technologies to enhance information access, and “instill democratic norms and ideals and foster independent thinking” by distributing materials to “reform-minded North Koreans in the Asia region.” Additional radio broadcasts into North Korea are carried out by the BBC, Radio Free Asia, and Global Korean Network, a service by Korean Broadcasting System, South Korea’s national public broadcaster.
According to a defector survey conducted by the Seoul-based Unification Media Group in 2019, 80 percent of North Koreans who watch and listen to foreign content do so at night and 40 percent consume this content at least once per week. Although over half of the survey respondents say they hear people discussing South Korean media content, these conversations are typically restricted to close friends and family members. DVDs were fashionable a few years back, but these days, North Koreans prefer thumb drives and micro memory cards because they are small and easy to hide. This makes them ideal for quickly stashing during a crackdown by fearsome officers from the Ministry of People’s Security and the Ministry of State Security, especially when one doesn’t have enough cash on hand to pay a bribe.
North Korea was forced to wrestle with the influx of information from the outside world as the border loosened, new foreign goods were traded in less-regulated marketplaces, and mobile phones became more prevalent. Defector surveys carried out by Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard for their book Witness to Transformation revealed a correlation between the consumption of foreign media and “more negative assessments of the regime.” They also found a positive relationship between the degree of reliance on market-based income (versus government sources) and “perceptions of tightening restrictions and joking with peers about the government.” Some North Koreans secretly use foreign mobile phones near the border with China to make calls to family and business contacts abroad, but the authorities use high-tech radar detectors and phone tapping devices to catch and punish these people.
In response, the regime adopted an aggressive three-pronged approach that includes blocking access to foreign media, punishing consumption, and offering alternatives. The government has empowered crackdown squads with high-tech tools to block the circulation of illicit materials. Under Kim, the country has also revised its criminal code and amplified the surveillance and punishment of offenders.
The results of this campaign are stifling. North Korea ranked 179th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, which says “the totalitarian regime continues to keep its citizens in a state of ignorance.” The vast majority of defectors (85 percent) polled by Intermedia in 2018 said that punishments for consuming foreign content had become more severe under Kim. The Unification Media Group survey found that three out of four respondents had witnessed someone being punished for watching foreign content.
North Korea further tightened the noose across all realms of life following the second U.S.-North Korean summit in Hanoi in February 2019, when Kim, one month after returning from Vietnam without a major diplomatic victory, renewed the self-reliance campaign. State media have since noticeably stepped up rhetoric on conducting ideological education, combating “anti-socialist” elements, and obeying the country’s draconian laws.
North Korea’s social control campaign was elevated during the COVID-19 lockdown, with the party underscoring the importance of combating “non-socialist” elements at a high-profile meeting. This culminated in the state passing a “law on rejecting reactionary ideology and culture.” The main goal of the law is reportedly to block the inflow and consumption of South Korean cultural content. North Korea’s authorities also reportedly stepped up crackdowns on the consumption and spread of South Korean content since the passage of the law.
In an effort to make its propaganda material more competitive, North Korea has modernized its state-run television, especially since Kim’s public debut in 2010. Examples include: enhancing the visual quality of state-run television, calling to improve the signal quality for broadcasts, and offering limited access to party-approved foreign cultural content such as foreign films and dramas. However, it is questionable whether enhanced visualization and curated foreign content will be enough to keep up with the tastes of North Koreans. Despite the extraordinary efforts of the Kim regime to block information from entering the country, many North Koreans have already developed an appetite for foreign trends and South Korean culture.
The Danger of a Freed Mind
The spread of outside information could help to form the basis for a civil society in North Korea. In turn, this could lead to pressure on the government to treat its people better and reconsider its hostile international posture. In the long term, continued exposure could even improve the relationship between state and society and boost prospects for a revised foreign policy calculus that favors rapprochement.
The exposure to ideas, language, and values from abroad helps to transform the way in which North Koreans view themselves, their society, and the wider world. The increased availability of outside sources of information has caused North Koreans to trust state media less, blame Kim for the country’s problems more, and decrease their support for the state ideology of Juche (which roughly translates to “self-reliance”), according to defector surveys carried out by Seoul National University. These changes can be a source of inspiration for action. In particular, multiple studies indicate that South Korean cultural content has a particularly significant impact, in some cases influencing the decision to defect and easing refugees’ integration into the South.
North Korean defector and Ewha Womans University professor Dr. Hyun In-nae recently told one of the authors that “the younger generation [of defectors] has a much faster time adjusting” to life in South Korea. She explained that the new generation has “typically already seen South Korean dramas and publications.” This has made it possible for them to adjust to their new lives within just a year or two, compared to the typical 10-year adjustment period for defectors who arrived in Hyun’s cohort more than 15 years ago.
North Korea’s informational control is without parallel. But perhaps the nearest peer on this front — East Germany — no longer exists. Radio broadcasts produced by West Germany were also consumed in the Communist East. These entertainment and news programs enjoyed popularity on both sides of the divide, and helped to create a common sense of identity and community. East Berliner Anna Kaminsky said that the broadcasts led many East Germans to “recalibrate their mentalities … leading to the democratic protests and the border reforms.”
This precedent is certainly on the mind of North Korea’s leadership. The party-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun recently published an article warning, “The former socialist states in Eastern Europe were unable to prevent the ideological deterioration of the youth, muddying the fresh air of the socialist society, [and causing] waves of capitalist thoughts and corrupt trends.”
North Korea’s central media have expressed concern about the ideological purity of young North Koreans. The official media campaign is supplemented by internal educational materials and guidance on crackdowns. During weekly indoctrination and criticism sessions, North Koreans are sometimes shown videos demonstrating bad behavior. One video, shown by defector and National Assembly member Thae Yong Ho in 2019, featured footage of North Koreans wearing contraband clothing with non-Korean letters on them. To discourage these trends, the offenders were named and shamed.
Growing regime sensitivities to the youth’s preference for Western cultural influences culminated in a letter that Kim sent in April of this year to a national youth league congress, where he called for inculcating the youth with socialist principles and values. Kim said it was patriotic to “defend the purity and future of our young people” against “anti-socialist and non-socialist practices.” Furthermore, at party and youth league meetings, Kim himself explicitly pointed out that the youth’s clothing and hairstyles require rectification. This theme is occasionally brought up by North Korean media, but it is highly unusual for the country’s top leader to personally mention it.
In a country as restrictive as North Korea, alternate sources of information are critical for allowing the North Korean people to forge informed opinions about the state’s place in society. Amb. Robert King, former U.S. special envoy for North Korea human rights issues, writes that North Korea’s efforts to restrict access to outside ideas and influence “reflects Kim Jong-un’s conviction that foreign media represents a significant challenge to his totalitarian regime.”
A sudden change in North Korea’s political system is an extremely remote possibility. However, in the long run, the shifting values and perspectives of large chunks of the population could bring North Korea increasingly closer to a different assessment of its interests and willingness for change. While North Korea’s regime remains one of the most repressive governments on the planet, it still strives to instill loyalty and it perceives foreign media as undercutting this effort. Outside information undermines dubious claims made in state propaganda, such as the notion that Kim is an internationally respected statesman or that South Korea started the Korean War. Armed with information to compare the poor performance of the Kim government with other countries and governments around the world, North Koreans feel discontent and disillusionment.
Furthermore, capitalist countries or those with experience in economic reform should redouble efforts to share with North Korean academics and officials knowledge and knowhow on market economic policies that they can take back to their country, adjust, and apply as North Korea continues to experiment with reform-oriented economic measures. A North Korea that has a clear roadmap for economic change is likely to be more receptive to change across social, cultural, and even political realms.
South Korea, the United States, and civil society organizations in both countries should continue to support North Korean defectors and refugees living in South Korea and elsewhere. Should the North Korean government collapse or open up, these individuals will be the natural bridge between the outside world and North Korea, and will prove instrumental in any scenario involving either a breakdown or integration.
Jonathan Corrado is director of policy at the Korea Society, where he helps to produce programming and conduct research projects related to Korean Peninsula security issues. Jonathan is also a Pacific Forum non-resident James Kelly Fellow, a National Committee on American Foreign Policy Emerging Leader, and a contributor to NK Pro.
Rachel Minyoung Lee is a nonresident fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center. Lee was a North Korea collection expert and analyst with Open Source Enterprise under the CIA from 2000 to 2019. During that time, she wrote on a broad range of North Korean issues, from leadership, domestic politics and economy, and foreign policy, to social and cultural developments.