“It Works Like A Market Economy”: Part 2 of 3 on Outside Media in North Korea

A radio tower stands in North Korea. Radio inside the country is limited to state transmissions, but citizens are often able to pick up transmissions from China or South Korea. Photo credit InterMedia.

In part 1 of this series we were introduced to the surge of outside media availability inside North Korea, reported in a recent survey of defectors and others with recent inside experience in North Korea by InterMedia. In this post we’ll go deeper into the role outside media plays inside the isolated country.

DVDs aren’t the only source of information on the outside world. CDs, cassettes, USBs, and even micro-SD cards are flourishing in black market trade, providing additional access to outside films and TV shows. Access typically comes through border residents or through the political and economic elite; the media are then shared with trusted contacts throughout the country. Some people in positions of power can even “order” a show or film brought in and it will make its way across the border through a network of bribery and smuggling.

We’ve spoken mostly about the role of entertainment media, but news media are equally important. Here radio plays a small but special role; there are fewer citizens listening to the radio, but it represents the only available source of real-time information from the outside world. One defector reported monitoring news on food aid, since it affected exchange rates inside the country and had a strong impact on her private business. Another reported on the sophisticated political and economic awareness developed by North Koreans: “When U.S.-North Korea relations deteriorate or when the South Korean army begins military drills, security checks at the border become very rigid. We have to prepare for those situations…. When the border shuts down, exchange rates soar and mineral prices go down. In contrast, imported products become more expensive. It works like a market economy.”

The economic elite, it seems, tend to listen to the radio for “hard content” such as news and analysis that are otherwise impossible to come by in North Korea; likewise the political elite. Less elite listeners tend to be come to radio from the gateway of entertainment media like DVDs; according to the survey, they are usually more interested in “soft content” on the radio: cultural fare that includes music, radio dramas, or even defectors’ letters home.

Clandestine acknowledgment of access to these media is also growing, whether implicit or explicit. A 45-year-old woman who left in 2010 said, “I think now, almost all citizens listen or watch. You can tell when you talk to them… they will use [South] Korean words. In North Korea there is no such phrase as ‘no doubt’ (당연하지) [sic]. When they use a word like that, you think, ‘that person watches too.’”

Possession and consumption of foreign DVDs, music, etc. is still very much illegal, but enforcement seems to be lax, mostly due to the difficulty of policing these more easily hidden goods, a phenomenon clearly visible in the U.S. through the frequency of illegal sharing of music, videos, and books. Furthermore, bribes in North Korea can frequently circumvent punishment, and those surveyed agree that these days very few citizens inform on each other.

Even if you can trust your friends, though, it’s a dangerous pastime. One 25-year-old man describes the experience in detail: “To be honest, watching an episode of a Korean drama is a psychological war. First, I need to completely guard the place where I’m watching the show; I have to block the windows with curtains and closely guard the entrance door. Then I lock the door and listen with an earphone on a low volume so that no one outside can hear what I’m watching. Because there are frequent inspections, I make sure I can move the moment the inspectors come. The whole scene of me watching drama is worthy of a real drama show. Nonetheless, there is the additional excitement that comes from watching in secret.”

Such precautions are almost universal, but for many North Koreans today, the benefits still outweigh the risks. One mobile phone user reported filling a washbasin with water and putting the lid of a rice cooker over his head whenever he made a call. He wasn’t sure if it actually worked or not; still, he noted, he was never caught.

What effect does the growth of foreign media actually have on North Koreans? For answers and more, come back for Part 3.

1 thought on ““It Works Like A Market Economy”: Part 2 of 3 on Outside Media in North Korea

  1. Pingback: ”Everyone Thinks Highly Of South Korea”: Part 3 of 3 on Outside Media in North Korea | MOU OneKorea

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