Dying to Communicate: North Koreans Struggle for Access to the Outside World

People are literally dying to access information in North Korea today.

North Korea’s communist government restricts its citizens from accessing any information that has not been state-approved. The country, anchored in the unique political thesis of Juche (self-reliance), undeniably has a cult of personality around Kim Il-Sung, Kim-Jong-Il, and now Kim Jong-Eun. In addition to the well-known bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang to which all foreign visitors and passer-bys must greet with a deep bow, there are framed photos of the father and son in every household, office room, and classroom, along with state propaganda radios that do not have an “off” button. Even the nation’s flora has been bioengineered to celebrate Kim Jong-Il. (Kimjongilia blooms on Kim Jong-Il’s birthday.)

As a state with one of the worst human rights records, North Korea severely punishes those who consume information that’s considered off-limits. Consequences include fines, sentences to concentration camps, or even execution. Three to five generations of a criminal’s relatives are punished as well, per the country’s guilt-by-association policy. However, information from the outside world has long been secretly pushed into North Korea through a variety of creative means including balloon launches with freedom messages, DVDs, secret radio programs, and more recently through USB flash drives.

Given the demand for foreign media among citizens, there is a fairly established system for smuggling technological devices into the country. Religious organizations, NGOs, and defectors send these goods in for free distribution or for sale via Chinese businessmen (who have easier mobility into the country). Chinese brokers comprise a lucrative business by charging families large fees for delivering care packages to North Korean families. The image below is one of a care package that a refugee residing in Seoul sent to his family in North Korea via a Chinese broker. Note the illegal mobile phones that are considered basic technology that are smuggled into North Korea to bridge familial ties and the information gap.

North Korea

Photo Credit: Mr. Lee's Personal Photo

More recently, North Koreans have been turning to cell phones to illegally access information by calling relatives outside the country. Illicit cell phone usage, especially for calls outside the country, is punishable by hefty fines, detention, and even public executions for high profile cases. During the 100-day mourning period after Kim Jong Il’s recent death, the new leader declared that anyone caught using a mobile phone for the ‘wrong’ reasons would be tried and punished as a war criminal. Nonetheless, a growing number of people are taking great risks to smuggle Chinese phones into the country, and use such phones on the Chinese wireless network. In order to decrease the number of people illicitly using phones, the government has been using Russian and German listening devices to catch people using illegal phones to arrest and punish them.

It is fair to say that the state enforces even more stringent restrictions on people’s access to the Internet. Nobody can access the Internet, except for a little over 1,000 high-ranking party members and gatekeepers who scour the Web to look for valuable materials (e.g. scientific and health reports) to push into the state-run intranet. (Est. population: 24.5 million)

Even in this resource-starved rogue state, people are taking huge risks to figure out ways to learn about the world around them, and are realizing that North Korea really isn’t paradise on earth, as they’ve been brainwashed to believe since the state’s inception. Let’s stay tuned to see how people are going to apply this information to empower themselves and potentially effect change.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Jieun Baek

Currently a Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government where she graduated 2014. Graduated from Harvard College 2009 as a Government concentrator, where interest in North Korea sparked. Love PolicyMic. Always open to a good conversation!

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