North Koreans Quietly Open to International Broadcasts

By Alan Heil
(This post originally appeared at The Public Diplomacy Council.)

For well more than a decade, Korea experts who specialize in international media have been examining the impact of foreign broadcasts and DVDs on users in North Korea. They have done so through a combination of in-country surveys and debriefings of defectors from North Korea, refugees and travelers abroad. In annual reports, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders invariably have ranked that country as having the “least free” media in the world. Yet the curtain of near total silence appears to be opening as never before in North Korea.

In a landmark study released May 11, “A Quiet Opening,” Nat Kretchun, Associate Director of InterMedia Survey in Washington DC, and Jane Kim, Korea Projects Coordinator of the East West Coalition’s office in Beijing, conclude that a substantial portion of the North Korean population now has access to external media, through foreign TV, radio and DVDs. Foreign DVDs and smuggled mobile phones brought into the country from China or South Korea are contributing to the awakening. Awareness of the outside world has grown exponentially among North Koreans since the late 1990s.

In the words of a 45-year-old woman, Hamkyongnamdo, who left North Korea a year ago this month: “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.’ When they use a word like that , you think, ‘that person watches, too’.” Or, as a 27-year-old woman named Yanggangdo, who left the North earlier last year, put it: “At first, I watched outside media purely out of curiosity. However, as time went by, I began to believe in the contents. It was an addictive experience. Once you start watching, you simply cannot stop.”

According to Kretchun, there is a strong link between foreign media exposure and positive perceptions of the outside world, implying that the influx of foreign media contributes to a more aware North Korean citizenry. DVDs and South Korean soap operas are especially popular. And the recent opening of North Korea to Western journalists has been striking. Last month, North Korean officials invited a group of reporters from Western and Asian media into the country for a firsthand, eyewitness observation of the centennial of the late Kim Il Sung’s birth. The foreign press also was invited to witness what turned out to be an aborted long-ranch missile launch.

Among those witnessing the launching — and taking photographs of it for his network’s website — was Voice of America Korean Service correspondent Sungwon Baik. He produced dozens of eyewitness radio reports and two television news features during and following his trip. It was his second journey to North Korea, and clearly his most rewarding. A North Korean official escort expressed displeasure when Sungwon, at a briefing, inquired how Pyongyang could spend so much on missiles as food shortages ravaged sections of the country.

The InterMedia study notes that about 27 percent of those who have left North Korea or travelled abroad had access back in the country to VOA, Radio Free Asia, or other external networks. As Kretchun puts it: “Parallel to increased foreign media access is an increased willingness by North Koreans to share information with others they trust, creating an information multiplier effect. Sharing of illegal foreign content is a key factor in strengthening horizontal bonds between North Korean citizens. This breaks down the state’s top-down monopoly on the supply of information and ideas.” There is substantial evidence of what would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: North Koreans gathering together to watch illegal DVDs.

As Harvard historian and Public Diplomacy Council member Joseph S. Nye Jr. observed in a lecture last week: “Power with others, and not power over others” is smart power’s strong suit in the 21st century. “ Sometimes,’ he added, “ it’s not the army that wins — it’s the story.” Or, in the words of two young residents of Hyesan City, North Korea, quoted in the InterMedia Survey report. In the words of one: “I was told when I was young that South Koreans are very poor, but the South Korean dramas proved that just isn’t the case.” And in the words of the other: “Accessing foreign media didn’t change my life, but it changed how I analyze my life.”


Alan L. Heil Jr. is a former deputy director of VOA, author of Voice of America: A History and editor of Local Voices/Global Perspectives: Challenges Ahead for U.S. International Media.

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