Foreign Affairs, Human Rights

Changing DPRK Demands Customized Approach to Freedom of Information Advocacy

Commentary on Beyond Parallel’s “A View Inside North Korea”

North Koreans are gaining greater access to uncensored information about regional conditions and world events thanks to new forms of media and technology flooding into the country from abroad. Former North Korean ambassador Thae Yong Ho – who defected to South Korea with his family in 2016 – has spoken at length about the spread of information in North Korea. Thae noted that North Korean residents use such information to gain a better understanding of life on the peninsula and beyond, and as a result are becoming more critical of the propaganda presented to them by the authorities. The most recent findings from the CSIS Beyond Parallel poll confirm these assertions.

At a recent press conference, Thae said, “The arrival of information by USBs, and drones, etc. will enlighten residents about the Kim regime’s fabrications and bring about the regime’s collapse. As I became aware of South Korea’s economic rise and democratization through the internet and other means, I realized that the Kim government has no future. The regime continues to produce a never-ending stream of propaganda, but the shaky logic of this content is becoming apparent. As more North Koreans become awakened to the truth, the likelihood is high that more and more will feel a sense of estrangement towards their government.”

Thae’s descriptions paint a broad picture of the desires and sentiments of ordinary North Koreans. Although only a limited number of people have smartphones that can access radio broadcasts, informants in the country report that the demand for such devices is consistently high. In addition, there is a lot of interest in alternative devices like the Chinese-made notetels (portable media players) and domestically-produced North Korean smartphones. It has been five years since electronic devices like laptops, external hard drives, and digital cameras first emerged in the official markets without special restrictions. Smugglers have secured protection from State Security Department officials through bribery, allowing them to import USBs and SD cards loaded with foreign media.

North Koreans working and living abroad, like former Minister Thae, also have greater access to foreign media via the internet and smartphones, which they use to understand how North Korea is viewed by the outside world. Party cadres and diplomatic staff are not allowed to access or disseminate content critical of Kim Jong Un in North Korea, but they are accustomed to freely accessing information outside. Such individuals deserve our special attention and should be considered as targets for outreach campaigns.

A comprehensive strategy to open up the country with information will require custom tailored programming relevant to the background and social class of the consumers. It is important to have a sense of the media preferences of North Koreans and to provide information that matches the needs and dispositions of the various demographic groups within the country.

Developing and disseminating new media will be a challenging process. The North Korean regime has placed restrictions on the North Korea-China border and completely banned all Hallyu (South Korean cultural wave) media content and devices under the banner of ‘strengthening the propaganda war.’ Numerous reports have stated that the North Korean authorities are turning their focus away from DVDs and towards a stricter ban on computers with USB slots and external hard drives. This may be due to the relative impracticality of widely sharing DVDs in contrast to USBs and external hard drives, the content of which can be quickly copied and transferred to other storage devices.

The regime’s strategy to block the flow of information will also face challenges. Smartphones are providing North Koreans with a window to the world. Currently, information such as regional prices, the black market rate of foreign currencies, and the supply and demand for given products in each region can be accessed all over the country by smartphone.

Another change that deserves attention is the marketization that has dramatically increased the mobility of the average North Korean. Traveling merchants effectively serve as carriers of information to regions across the country. According to a 2010 study by Intermedia, “word of mouth” still remains the most important and most trusted source of information for North Koreans. There is thus a need to adjust the information strategy to amplify the impact of these traveling communicators.

Continued marketization and the corresponding distribution of information will further expose the North Korean leadership’s fallacies. However, more research is required to better understand the relationship between the markets and information distribution.

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