Finding Truth in the Hermit Kingdom: Foreign Information in North Korea

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PYONGYANG — Feeding its own people is rarely a topic discussed on North Korean state television. Seemingly more important issues take precedent — successful missile launches or summits involving leaders of notable foreign nations come to mind.

Since its inception under Kim Il Sung, the totalitarian state has been abysmal at providing even basic necessities to the general population, and equally as inept at admitting to it. It has been far more capable of creating a vale of misconceptions, propaganda, and outright lies about daily life outside of its borders.

Accessing Foreign Information in North Korea

A traditionally inward looking country, with punitive policies and heavy-handed oversight of unauthorized media products, North Korea has tried to limit its own people’s view of the outside world. But an underground information revolt is afoot, and has been for years. As brave citizens find access to various forms of foreign information in North Korea, especially about life in other countries, this formerly resilient veil appears to be coming down.

Although referred to as the “hermit kingdom,” citizens are becoming ever more connected with each other and the rest of the world. From smuggling old technologies and illicit contraband through established markets, to worker’s participation in economic cooperation zones, the state’s ability to curtail the inflow of information is increasingly under threat.

Ever since the ruinous famine of the mid 1990s, the North Korean regime has (understandably) tempered its expectations of providing responsible and competent governance for its people. In response, over the last two decades North Koreans have increasingly relied on their own ingenuity and economic adventurism rather than the state to meet its most rudimentary needs.

North Korean Markets

Lacking official alternatives to basic goods, North Koreans have formed informal private markets. Over the last 20 years, the markets, known as “Jangmadangs,” have offered erstwhile unknown opportunities for poor North Koreans to buy or barter essential goods.

Without reliable statistics, the importance and scale of Jangmadangs is hard to gauge—some estimates range from 380 to 730 in the country. These fairly sophisticated and large markets are critical sources of goods for poor North Koreans who have no other state sponsored option. Roughly three quarters of the population rely on informal markets to survive.

But citizens of the totalitarian state do not only desire household goods, food and clothing. North Koreans also crave knowledge of life outside its own borders. Most recently, these markets have turned into a clearing house for information to the wider world, and a decidedly efficient one.

Media Exposure

According to a report by Washington research group InterMedia, exposure to media devices in North Korea such as DVD players and televisions has become nearly universal. Surprisingly, access is not determined by socio-economic and demographic divides either.

Gaining access to foreign material is often accomplished via a popular Chinese made mobile device known as the “Notetel.” Ironically, these players are often purchased at Jangmadang markets, which although unsanctioned by the state, are generally tolerated as a space for private trade. With the support of USB drives, memory cards and DVDs, the Netetel serves as an invaluable source for media and the truth about life abroad.

These devices also provide fleeting moments of happiness for ordinary citizens. In an interview with NPR last year, Yeonmi Park, who escaped from North Korea in 2007, described foreign media’s encouraging influence on their spirit and morale: “Just for a couple of hours you forget about how life is so hard…almost dreaming of another place.” Allowing the poorest citizens a bit of respite from their arduous daily life is a noteworthy, if less tangible, outcome of foreign information in North Korea.

Unfortunately, the proliferation of these banned products has not gone unnoticed by the state. While trading information among citizens has become easier with the proliferation of mobile phone access — there are more than three million official phone subscribers in North Korea — the regime’s efforts at preventing access to foreign information have only grown more severe.

Interestingly enough, the North Korean state has vacillated over the legality of the Netetel ever since it appeared on the black market in 2005. Having once required registration with the state of all Notetels, the regime then legalized its use in 2014. According to defector-led news organizations the device is once again prohibited.

How the Other Side(s) Lives

In addition to growing access to unsanctioned information, North Koreans are seeing for themselves how people in other countries live. An economic cooperation zone, the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), is helping to underline the divergence of technological and economic progress between North and South Korea.

By offering well-paid jobs to North Koreans, the KIC tries to highlight the frail underpinnings of North Korean’s official state ideology. Seeing firsthand the far more efficient economic machinery of South Korea diminishes North Korea’s boastful claims of superiority and instead emphasizes its relative domestic inadequacies in economic governance.

The growth of foreign information in North Korea, whether gained from direct contact with outsiders or from smuggled USB drives, provides hope. Similar to the establishment of Jangmadangs, the government’s inability to provide a necessary service of anything resembling truth has opened the door to black, or rather grey, market activity in information.

If the progression of these markets resembles that of the Jangmadangs over the last 20 years, the regime might decide on begrudgingly tolerating the banned media. Whether this underground information revolt is as lasting and transformative as the Jangmadangs is yet to be seen, but the world is optimistic.

– Nathan Ghelli
Photo: Flickr

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About Author

Nathan Ghelli

Nathan writes for The Borgen Project from Salt Lake City, UT. Nathan completed my master’s in economics at the University of Utah. His thesis focused on the possible trade flow repercussions in the European Union of the 2014 Russian food embargo. International trade, US foreign policy, and the geopolitics of the Eurasia region are of particular interest to him.

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