Like all kids, Kim Myung Sung was curious about the world around him. He wanted to know about what was happening in his own country and events abroad. However, getting the news was difficult because Myung Sung grew up in North Korea, a place where information, not only about the outside world, but also internal news, is highly restricted. However, late at night, from his home in the city of Hamheung, he could secretly listen to radio news broadcasts delivered from abroad. It was these late night broadcasts that gave him the desire to finally escape and make the long and arduous journey to the South.
North Korea has been able to sustain its closed and increasingly isolated regime, in part, through total control of the information that its citizens receive. There is a reason authoritarian governments throughout history hinder, control, limit, or even outright ban outside news sources. Information is power, powerful enough for citizens to demand its government to make life better, or even powerful enough to demand a new government. Tom Malinkowski knows this well. As part of the human rights sector of the US State Department, he was in charge of getting information into North Korea. To Malinkowski, information is like a pyramid, starting with entertainment at the bottom, straightforward sources like documentaries and history shows in the middle, and political ideas, like human rights, at the top. In extreme cases like North Korea, a flood of any sort of media from the outside could have a large informational impact on citizens, such as foreign movies and TV shows. However, in order to educate the largest audience about internal and external events, the most important information comes from the upper part of Malinowski’s pyramid, the news. The news is best at sowing ideas in a population because it can shed light on events the government hopes to keep dark. Although there is no guarantee that an informed populace would bring immediate change in North Korea, the fact that Pyongyang puts so much effort into blocking all outside news sources says that it is scared of its citizens having detailed knowledge about the government or other countries, essentially trying to outlaw free thought. This is why spreading the news is an important goal for those wanting to help the people of North Korea.
Despite the limited data available about the country, analysts note a growing fear of infiltration of outside information amongst Pyongyang leadership. The dots are easy enough to connect. The state security service now demands higher bribes from people caught consuming foreign media, and new undercover government groups have been formed to fight the flow of information. Crackdowns on defectors have been rising and border security is tighter, even though the demographic trend of defectors has remained consistent over the last 10 years or so, mostly laborers or farmers from the poorer border regions. Why would the North Korean elite be so concerned about individuals who, for the most part, lack political power, escaping to the South? Intermedia, a Washington D.C. based global development research group, may have some answers. According to their 2016 report, “Compromising Connectivity: Information Dynamics Between the State and Society in a Digitizing North Korea,” nine in ten defectors surveyed said they consumed some sort of outside media before escaping, including those that came from economically poorer regions. Even some of the poorest people of North Korea escape with knowledge of the outside world, and after living abroad, they can then pass even more information back into North Korea to their friends and family. Pyongyang knows that news can cross socio-economic boundaries. Another indicator comes from an incident in 2015 in which two South Korean soldiers were injured in a mine explosion at the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Seoul responded by reactivating loudspeakers that can reach far across the border. Besides blasting K-pop music, they also played news broadcasts. This drew the most extreme reaction from Pyongyang, which gave an ultimatum: turn off the speakers or they will be blown up by artillery. Loud music is irritating, but information about North Korea transmitted by outside sources can be unnerving to its high-alert soldiers. Pyongyang’s aggressive response to the news shows that authoritarian governments sometimes show fear through threats.
This fear of information proliferation is easy to understand from the North Korean government’s point of view. News about the world, much less one’s neighbors, can spark curiosity in a population, which naturally leads to questions. Questions can be particularly dangerous to the North Korean elite. Surrounded by three of the world’s top 15 economies, North Korea is more or less stuck back in time. Despite recent growth, its economy is still one of the smallest in the world, and its GDP pales in comparison to that of South Korea. If news, even of just daily life of those abroad, can spark unrest among the people of the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ then it could spell disaster for the ruling Kim regime. No gun can defeat an idea, and no government can completely control the minds of its people, no matter how much government-run propaganda is employed. News from various, diverse sources is the best antidote to propaganda.
History is rife with examples of resistance-driven news. One of the French’s most potent weapons against the Nazis during World War II was a vast underground press. More recently, speakers from Cuba at the Bridging Borders Conference in July 2017 in the Seoul Press Center explained how they clandestinely passed USB drives around the country to counter the Castro government’s censors. USB drives are capable of storing massive amounts of information and because no internet connection is required, the state cannot track them. Cuba and North Korea actually have many things in common. Both were client states of the Soviet Union, faced hostility from the United States, and are geographically inaccessible. Like the case in Cuba, USBs and SD cards are rampant in North Korea as well. People smuggle pre-loaded devices from China, filled with South Korean and American TV shows, as well as other content, for citizens to watch using portable DVD players, phones, and computers.
However, the USB issue highlights an important challenge in taking on Pyongyang’s vast surveillance apparatus. The famine of the 1990s forced citizens not only to develop black markets for survival, but more networks of communication as well. The government, realizing it could not prevent this flow of communication of amongst its citizens, decided to try and control the networks instead. Although mobile phones are becoming more common, this does not indicate the citizens are connecting to the rest of the world. Users can connect only through North Korean intranet, and while most electronic devices are smuggled in from China, the regime has gotten out in front by developing its own technology and providing some of the devices itself. This includes domestically produced smartphones and computers tailored with the government’s own software. This software is an example of the government on the offensive. The electronic platforms are internally made and use a sophisticated process called ‘watermarking’ that flags unauthorized content played on the devices, such as foreign-made USB drives. A watermark then alerts the authorities. The phones also take periodical, un-erasable screen shots that authorities can demand to see. Pyongyang has built a surveillance state that would impress even Orwell.
So how can the news be delivered? The key is to spread information quicker than the government can block it. This is not an easy task, but there are some signs of encouragement. As of now, the best means is through radio. Radio is the most influential medium for information in North Korea. The Intermedia report stated that, “radio broadcasts remain the only source of nationally available, real-time, targeted news content available inside North Korea.” Their studios and towers are located safely outside the country, and it is impossible for the government to jam all radio signals. Also, due to their size, personal radios can be easily hidden. Radio is a more popular form of entertainment than TV in North Korea.
As for the content of the broadcasts, some defector groups are able to send in smaller programs from South Korea and China. However, many defectors surveyed said that they listened to Korean language versions of foreign news outlets, such as KBS from South Korea, Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia from the United States, and some Chinese news as well, to learn about the outside world. In August, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) announced it would begin a Korean language service and 30-minute program to be broadcast at night in North Korea. This is the right start. News organizations like these with the financial resources have the best chance at sending their message far into the North. This too, naturally, faces obstacles. Pyongyang tries to stop these broadcasts any way possible. When the North Korean embassy in London expressed its opposition, the head of BBC World Service guaranteed that the forthcoming broadcast is not anti-government or a dissident service. This is important. These broadcasts must be careful to make sure the content is not skewed towards a political agenda. If the content actively or passively encourages its listeners to defy their authoritarian government, it will only reinforce Pyongyang’s narrative that North Korea stands alone against the hostile world surrounding it. There is no need to fight fire with fire in this situation. The North Korean people only need the foreign news services to play the news as it is, delivered in the Korean language. Despite the highly monitored and supposedly structured lives average North Koreans lead, the people are not droids. Send the North Korean people the news from as many angles as possible and let them make their own judgments. Those judgments can then turn into discussion and develop into ideas. Simple news can be a bug that infects the government’s information repression system.
Kim Myung Sung, the curious kid who escaped after hearing news radio broadcasts, gets to deliver the news himself now as a political reporter for the Chosun Daily, Korea’s largest newspaper. He, like many others, wants the citizens of North Korea to be informed and have access to a variety of information sources. While there have been plenty of authoritarian regimes throughout history, none have expended as much effort as North Korea to block its citizens from obtaining and acting on outside information, like foreign news. Evan Osnos, a writer for the New Yorker (magazine) who returned from a trip from there in September said “….North Korea is in a class by itself” when it comes to information repression. However, people still risk severe punishment just to stay up at night to watch a South Korean show or listen to news on the radio. What does this mean? Kim Jung Un and his vast surveillance apparatus are worried about and know full well the danger of the news, but the citizens’ hunger for information about the world is greater than the fear of punishment. What was once a trickle of foreign news flowing into North Korea has now become a river. Through continued efforts of using mediums like the radio, it can become a roaring current that carries ideas to the North Korean people.