North Korea’s Digital Underground

To smuggle facts into or out of North Korea is to risk imprisonment and even execution. Yet today, aided by a half-dozen stealthy media organizations outside the country, citizen-journalists are using technologies new and old to break the regime’s iron grip on information. Will the truth set a nation free?

The North Korean government has always been of two minds when it comes to technology. Despite its guiding philosophy of “self-reliance” (juche), it has relied on neighbors to enable it to enter the information age. Its official YouTube videos, Twitter feed, and Facebook accounts are registered in China. Until the late 1990s, all international phone calls were routed through Beijing or Moscow. And what few connections to the Internet the country does have come via a cross-border link to China’s Unicom.

No more than a few thousand North Korean researchers and high officials have access to the Internet. Most North Korean citizens must settle instead for the Kwangmyong (“Bright Star”) intranet portal, which provides access to censored news and official documents and has a rudimentary e-mail service. Launched in 2000, Kwangmyong is based on a Japanese version of Microsoft Windows. It can be accessed at universities and in government offices, as well as in the hundred or so cyber cafés where young people in the country’s largest cities go to play games and watch videos.

Owning computers is legal, although they must be registered with the local authorities. Most computers, which generally run on pirated Microsoft software, come from China. The country’s only computer-manufacturing company, Morning Panda, produces barely 10,000 a year. If computers are rare, printers are even more so. They are closely monitored because of their potential for spreading anti-regime documents. Similarly, citizens are forbidden to own fax machines, which can be found only in national post offices and in business offices. Sending a fax requires the approval of a high-level employer. Cell phones, both legal and illegal, have become a fact of life only during the past five years.

Radio is the chief technology through which the regime communicates with its citizens and is, for a variety of reasons that include patterns of historical use, the technology of choice for the exile-media outlets. A few target specific audiences. North Korea Reform Radio, founded in 2007, directs its free-market message at government bureaucrats (it recently aired a 44-episode series on China’s economic liberalization); North Korea Intellectual Solidarity, or NKIS, a hybrid think tank and news organization, concentrates on the intelligentsia (“The bottom of the population are too ignorant and brainwashed, and the elites are too hardline,” says its founder, Kim Heung Kwang).

Much of the programming has a distinct social-media character. Free North Korea Radio’s Voices of the People features man-on-the-street interviews with North Koreans, their voices digitally distorted before being broadcast back into their country. NK Reform Radio interviews defectors now living in South Korea. Some are unable to fit into South Korean society, and their ambivalence about their new home comes through in their comments—itself evidence of their newfound freedom of speech.

The subject that most interests North Koreans is the country’s ruling dynasty: founder Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il, and his presumed heir, Kim Jong Un. Most of their subjects know little more than the idealized history of the Kims churned out by the state’s propaganda mill. They are shocked to learn that Kim Jong Il was born in Russia, and not on the mythic Mount Paektu; Koreans are quite socially conservative and are aghast that he has fathered several children with women other than his wives.

Editors have wasted no time creating a suite of Kim-centric programs. Open Radio North Korea broadcasts an original serial drama called 2012, whose title refers to the much-anticipated 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. It starts with the premise that Kim Jong Il has been incapacitated by a second stroke, and imagines what North Korea might be like in the near future. Radio Free Chosun has dramatized several memoirs about the ruling family, including one by Kim Jong Il’s chef. And even NK Reform Radio is getting in on the action with an original drama called What Did Kim Jong Il Eat During the Famine?

The bet is that a mix of entertainment and news is more compelling than broadcasts that focus on famine or human-rights abuses (things most North Koreans are well aware of). The evidence suggests that such programs work. In their surveys of North Korean refugees, Haggard and Noland found a clear correlation between the “consumption of foreign media” and “more negative assessments of the regime and its intentions.” Kim Seong Min, the founder of Free North Korea Radio, credits his own political awakening to shortwave-radio programs. As a North Korean propaganda officer, he sometimes listened to the illegal radios he confiscated. One night he heard a South Korean program that contradicted a number of the myths surrounding the Kim family. After a little research, he discovered that the broadcasts were true. Was everything he’d been taught a lie, he wondered? It wasn’t long before he defected.

Presented by

Robert S. Boynton directs New York University’s Literary Reportage concentration and is writing a book about the Cold War in Northeast Asia.

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