Commentary, Governance, Human Rights

North Koreans Want External Information, But Kim Jong-Un Seeks to Limit Access

North Korea has the abysmal “distinction” of ranking absolutely last of the 180 countries ranked in the World Press Freedom Index. This annual ranking is conducted by the Paris-based international organization Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières). The organization focuses on government efforts to control access to information, including limiting access to the internet and other digital media, and it advocates for the welfare of journalists reporting from dangerous areas. 

The extreme lengths to which the North Korean government will go to prevent its citizens from accessing external information has been documented by the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) into North Korea human rights. This distinguished panel, established by the United Nations Human Rights Council, investigated the “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Paragraphs 163-264 of the COI report focus on violations of freedom of thought and expression and provide detailed information on the techniques used to limit access to information and to block outside opinions and views.

The efforts to which North Korea will go to control media demonstrate that the country’s bottom-of-the-barrel ranking in media freedom is well deserved. In late 2017, for example, a North Korean court in Pyongyang sentenced two South Korean journalists and the heads of two leading South Korean newspapers in which their work was published to death (in absentia) without possibility of appeal for “seriously insulting the dignity” of the North. 

The insult to Pyongyang’s dignity came from the journalists’ positive reviews of the book North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors. A statement from North Korea’s Central Court accompanying the death ruling warned that the execution could be carried out “any moment and at any place, without going through any additional procedures.” This gangster-like death threat is the kind of warning one expects from a criminal Mafia boss, not the supposed legitimate criminal court of a state that is a member of the United Nations. Ironically, it was the South Korean journalists reviewing the book who were sentenced to death, not the British authors of the book.

Access to information is clearly an issue of highest concern to the Kim regime. A BBC journalist reported on his visit to Pyongyang during the Kim Jong-il era and wrote about the standards expected of North Korean “journalists.” It is quite clear that these same standards are still in place under his successor Kim Jong-un:

I bought an English translation of [Kim Jong-il’s] book, Guidance for Journalists, which is full of accounts of North Korean hacks weeping with joy while covering his official duties. There is no pretense of objectivity here. The advice on page 116 is typical: ‘It is advisable,’ it says, ‘that the newspapers carry articles in which they unfailingly hold the president in high esteem, adore him and praise him as the great revolutionary leader.’

The Information Landscape in North Korea

The information landscape in the North is tightly controlled. In the North, not only is listening to foreign radio or television broadcasts a severely-punished crime, it is illegal even to own or possess a radio or television set capable of being tuned to any station other than the official North Korean media. 

Access to the internet is simply not available to North Korean citizens, though a very few trusted individuals and security agencies have access to the international internet. For North Koreans, there is only an intranet whose content is carefully monitored and controlled by the regime. (For an update on recent wireless access in North Korea, see Martyn Williams on 38 North.) Cell phones are available, but North Korean cell phones cannot make international calls (meaning no ability to call friends or relatives in South Korea or Northeast China). Furthermore, cell phone usage in the North is heavily monitored by the security services. Cell phones are so carefully controlled that even diplomats and foreign business people working in the North are only able to get “foreigner-only” North Korean cell phones, meaning they cannot get a cell phone that allows them to call North Korean citizens. The foreigner-only cell phones can be used to call other foreigners in the North, and these phones are capable of making international calls for a hefty fee. But a foreigner-only phone does not permit the British ambassador in Pyongyang to call his North Korean driver, who has a “North Korean-only” phone. Chinese cell phones are frequently smuggled across the border, and North Koreans within a short distance of the Chinese border can make calls on the Chinese network. Border guards and State Security personnel are always on the lookout for illegal cell phones, and expensive illegal foreign mobile phones are immediately confiscated. Frequently, owners of illegal cell phones are sent to reeducation camps for a period.

The United States and other countries concerned about the policies of the Pyongyang regime have sought to increase access to international information by breaking the North Korean government’s information monopoly and allowing alternative voices. The Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) have a long record of broadcasting information directed to the North Korean people in the Korean language. South Korea’s KBS broadcasts radio transmissions that reach into the North. In the fall of 2017, BBC began broadcasting in Korean to the Korean Peninsula and Korean-speakers in Northeast China. Listening to these foreign information sources is prohibited in North Korea, and citizens who are discovered listening to foreign broadcasts or with any other type of access to foreign media are severely punished.

Current State of Information Access in North Korea

The United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM)—formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) before August 2018—periodically commissions reports to gauge listenership to U.S. international broadcasting and to understand the current media landscape in North Korea. The 2018 North Korea Defector, Refugee & Traveler Survey Report (InterMedia) gives a good sense of the current status of access to outside information there.

Researching the media landscape inside North Korea is not possible, but InterMedia conducted face-to-face interviews with 350 North Koreans who left the North recently (2016 to 2018). This sample includes individuals who were living in North Korea very recently, and it is a sample of individuals who were available and willing to talk. While it is not scientifically representative, the information comes directly from individuals with firsthand knowledge. 

Former residents of northeast areas of North Korea are disproportionately represented, since these are the North Koreans who are more able to leave the country. Also, more women than men were interviewed, despite efforts to reduce the gender imbalance. (The defector population from the North that reaches South Korea is disproportionately female. In the last couple of years, women have made up 70 percent or more of defectors.) Despite these limitations, data in the latest study are consistent with earlier reports and consistent with media reports and other information available about the media landscape in the North. 

This defector and traveler survey has obvious methodological limitations, but similar studies were used extensively for audience research during the Cold War for broadcasts of Radio Free Europe (RFE) to the countries of Central Europe. Following the collapse of the communist regimes in Europe in 1989, results of RFE traveler surveys were compared with confidential government surveys conducted in the communist era, which largely validated the findings of the RFE traveler surveys of that earlier era.

Listening to Foreign Radio

Generally, radio has declined in importance as a source of information as a multiplicity of other new media have become available. But where media access is restricted, as it clearly is in North Korea, radio remains a key source of timely external information. As the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression concluded:

Advances in technology have given people more ways to access an increasing amount of information. Local and international news can be read in the newspaper, listened to on radio, watched on television and found on cell-phones or online. For those with access to these options, a wealth of information is always readily available. In countries where free expression is suppressed, access to technology is expensive or illiteracy rates are high, radio continues to play an important role in information sharing.

Listeners and viewers of foreign radio and television in North Korea in the latest InterMedia report are consistent with past traveler and defector surveys. In North Korea, there is a significant audience listening to foreign radio. In the past, as well as in this latest sample, about a third of respondents said that while inside North Korea they listened to non-North Korean radio. The leading foreign radio broadcasts listened to in North Korea are U.S.-funded broadcasts from Radio Free Asia and Voice of America and South Korea’s KBS Minjok Broadcasting. Each one of these top three foreign stations have regular listeners (at least once a week), reaching 7 to 10 percent of the sample. “Defector Radio” (Radio Free North Korea, Radio Free Chosun, and North Korea Reform Radio, which are a voice for North Korean defectors in South Korea and which is supported by some U.S. government funds), each reach 1 to 3 percent of regular listeners. VOA in English as well as BBC in Korean and English also have regular listeners of around 1 percent each.

One-third of the sample reported listening to any radio broadcasts (domestic and foreign), and of that number, 90 percent of those who listen to any radio broadcasts are listening to foreign radio broadcasts. The overwhelming majority of individuals who are listening to radio are listening to foreign broadcasts.

These figures are consistent with other information that any radio listening is tantamount to foreign radio listening. For this reason, simply possessing a radio raises questions with security officials.

The analysis suggests that there are few casual listeners to foreign radio. Because of the danger of being caught and punished, individuals who listen to foreign radio are committed listeners who listen regularly. Peak listening hours for foreign radio, as in the past, are 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.—hours which are safer from security personnel visits and curious neighbors.

Television, DVDs, Thumb Drives, and Mobile Phones

Watching television directly is more difficult than listening to radio because of the different transmission characteristics. Nonetheless, one third of respondents watched Chinese or South Korean television directly, and those who watched included individuals from all of North Korea’s provinces. Fewer respondents from Pyongyang watched direct television, probably because enforcement in the capital was stricter and there is greater fear of surveillance and punishment. The largest portion of direct television viewers were those who lived near the borders with China and South Korea. Because Chinese origin Yanji-TV is in the Korean language and significant areas of North Korea are near the Chinese border, Yanji-TV was the most viewed direct foreign TV broadcast. Direct South Korean TV broadcasts were also popular, but the area of North Korea within broadcast range for South Korean television is smaller.

Foreign television programming is heavily watched on DVD and USB. Of the sample, 76 percent viewed foreign content on DVD, and 62 percent viewed foreign content on USB. Of the sample of those who viewed foreign content (271), 70 percent watched South Korean dramas or films, 37 percent watched Chinese dramas or films, 18 percent watched American or Western dramas or films, and 9 percent watched Japanese equivalents. Just over 1 percent watched international news reports, and 1 percent viewed religious content.

Access to mobile phones was found to be relatively high. Some 46 percent of respondents reported having access to a domestic cell phone, though that number is much higher than the proportion who personally own a mobile phone. The total number of domestic cell phones in North Korea is over 4 million, for a population of about 25 million people (Nikkei Asian Review gives the number at the end of 2016 as 3.6 million and growing at 11 percent over the previous year). Some individuals have cell phones that are not connected to the network, which are probably used for viewing non-approved content or for playing games. 

Some North Koreans in the Chinese border area have illegal Chinese mobile phones, though the number is far fewer than domestic cell phones. Chinese phones accessing a Chinese network along the border allow North Koreans to contact relatives in Northeast China or even in South Korea. These Chinese phones are also heavily used for business for those trading along the border. However, the punishment for having such an illegal mobile phone can be significant.

Pyongyang Authorities are Tightening Access to Foreign Media

During his time in power, Kim Jong-un has been particularly tough in trying to limit access to foreign media. In the recent InterMedia study, refugees and travelers were asked if they thought that punishment for watching or listening to foreign radio or television broadcasts had increased. Some 85 percent said punishments are more severe under Kim Jong-un than under his father, Kim Jong-il. Only 2 percent said they are less severe.

Kim Jong-un has also been more aggressive in digital monitoring. Around 2014, the “signature system” was introduced into the North Korean Android operating system. This automatically identifies and deletes all unapproved files and applications from cell phones or computers linked to the North Korean network. Any files which do not have the official “signature” are eliminated, which means foreign content will be lost. Three out of four individuals questioned in the survey reported that phone and device functionality was lost when the signature system was adopted.

The Kim Jong-un regime has focused on digital monitoring and automatic deletion of non-approved files on devices linked to the network. Since the internet is not available and the North Korean intranet is much less useful, computer users frequently are not linked to a network; hence, computers have been more difficult to monitor digitally. In fact, most respondents did not have access to the intranet at home or on a mobile device. The North Korean intranet is used principally at work or at school. Since the signature system works on devices with the Android operating system, foreign content has been less thoroughly policed on computers. North Korea’s Red Star computer operating system appears to be less effective in rooting out non-sanctioned files. 

In addition to the digital monitoring carried out by security officials, North Korean security personnel of “Group 109” are commissioned to root out foreign media or foreign information content. Their methods involve physically inspecting digital media to find foreign media that may be stored which has not been eliminated by digital monitoring. Almost two-thirds of respondents to the InterMedia survey had personally experienced an inspection by Group 109. These unfriendly in-person encounters have no doubt increased the fear of foreign media consumption. As a result, more casual use of foreign media has been discouraged. Thus, it appears that the aggressive digital and security personnel enforcement of the ban on foreign media has had some effect in discouraging access to sources of external information. It appears that foreign television viewership—via direct TV but more so through DVD and UBS programs—has continued to grow, but other types of foreign media consumption have not shown increases.

The intensity of North Korea’s struggle to limit access to foreign news, information, and culture reflects Kim Jong-un’s conviction that foreign media represents a significant challenge to his totalitarian regime. The influence of South Korean dramas, open media, K-Pop, fashion, and cosmetics in North Korea does represent a threat to one party rule. And that makes it all the more important that efforts continue to provide increased access to outside information for the people of North Korea.