Thursday, May 05, 2005

Cracks in North Korea's Information Blockade

In recent years, North Korea has gone from being an almost unknown country to one which we now know a great deal about. North Korea's nuclear program and its relations with the US have brought it notoriety, of course, and the DPRK's opening to tourists has resulted in personal snapshots of Pyongyang and the DMZ appearing on the internet. Information has even occasionally been provided by the North Korean government itself; the most significant recent example would be the release of the DPRK 2004 Nutrition Assessment Survey, which revealed a wealth of information about how the famine of the 1990s has affected its citizens. It is mostly due to refugees, however, that we now know as much as we do about the 'hermit state'. The famine of the 1990s spurred many to flee to China and South Korea; many thousands have made their way to the latter country in the past five years. These refugees have brought with them stories of life in the DPRK that abounded with references to starvation, public executions, and prison camps.

As a result of this, a great deal of information on North Korea's prison camp system has appeared in the last few years. The 'The Hidden Gulag', published by the HRNK, contains defectors' testimony and satellite photos. It includes testimony by Kang Chol-hwan, whose harrowing experiences are described in the memoir 'Aquariums of Pyongyang'. Stories of testing chemical weapons on prisoners (sometimes on entire families) surfaced early in 2004. That some refugees may be exaggerating is entirely possible. That they all are seems rather unlikely. Refugees have also told stories of the collapse of the public distribution system and the cessation of factory activity during the famine, which led to a rapid growth in markets (like the one pictured above) across the country. Andrei Lankov's article on the development of markets and the early signs of capitalism in the North is required reading.

There are other sources of information besides refugees, however; ones which have the ability to flow in two directions. Electronic technology is changing the outside world's perception of North Korea, just as it is changing North Korean perceptions of the outside world. Whether the change in perception is the former or latter depends on whether information is leaving or entering North Korea. Information entering the DPRK could potentially have a very negative effect upon the population, at least in the eyes of the government. North Korea's rulers maintain an information blockade which keeps its citizens in the dark about the rest of the world, especially South Korea. Two rather important pieces of technology have been testing the effectiveness of this blockade recently. The first is the cellphone. Chinese made cellphones (and prepaid phone cards) have been appearing in North Korea in recent months and are popular items in black markets there. Several articles have appeared about this recently, though the best would have to be Rebecca MacKinnon's, which I urge you to read. The other electronic agent of change is the VCR. As DVD players have become more popular in northern China, people there have been casting off their old VCRs, which have found their way into black markets in North Korea. A March 15 NYT article (now unavailable online) had this to say about VCRs:

"They are within the reach of the average family," said Dr. Lankov, who regularly interviews recent defectors. "They watch, almost exclusively, smuggled and copied South Korean movies and drama. Only a few weeks after airing here, they will go throughout North Korea."

More than showing middle-class family lifestyles, which can be staged in a studio, the soap operas also provide images of a modern Seoul - the forest of high-rise buildings, the huge traffic jams, the late-model cars.

With such images showing a stark contrast with primitive conditions in North Korea, Mr. Kim ordered the formation of a special prosecutor's office last November to arrest people who deal in South Korean goods, largely videotapes, or who use South Korean expressions or slang, analysts in South Korea say.

To crack down on home viewing of imported videotapes, the North Korean police developed the strategy of encircling a neighborhood in the evening, cutting off electricity, then inspecting players to find videotapes stuck inside, according to Young Howard, international coordinator of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, a Seoul-based group. Recent defectors have also told Mr. Howard that police cars with loudspeakers have patrolled neighborhoods, warning residents to maintain their "socialist lifestyle" and to shun South Korean speech and clothing and hairstyles, he said.

This article is no longer available (for free), but Newsweek has just published an article which is very similar, and which focuses on how the Chinese city of Dandong is becoming a conduit for foreign goods entering North Korea. It's well worth your time to read; I found it thanks to Lost Nomad.

Electronic information can also leave North Korea in many ways. The most memorable event of 2004 was the the train explosion in Ryongchon, when dozens of photos were taken of the North Korean town by foreign journalists allowed into the country. Recently, however, there have been examples of a more clandestine nature appearing on the internet or in Japanese or South Korean media. In early January, a video, apparently taken by a North Korean military officer, was smuggled out and broadcast on Japanese TV showing street children in the northeastern city of Cheongjin, as well as markets and an outdoor trial. Photos from the video appeared in South Korean newspapers; one of them is at the top of this post.

Less than two weeks later, a video appeared which was apparently made by a dissident organization in the north. In the video we see demands for freedom and democracy written over a poster of Kim Jong Il, followed by a speech denouncing the North Korean leader. More information is provided by Oranckay.

Then, in mid March, footage of a public execution (something described many times by refugees, though denied by the regime) was smuggled out and appeared on Japanese television. More information, as well as links to the video, can be found here, while Andrei Lankov's article on the history of public executions in the DPRK can be found here.

The most recent images to come out of North Korea were not taken in a clandestine manner; in fact, they were shown on live television for all to see. On March 31st, a soccer riot took place in Pyongyang stadium during a World Cup qualifying game between the DPRK and Iran after a 'wrong call' against the North Korean team was made by the referee. The DPRK lost the game and fans surrounded the Iranian team's bus after the game. Lankov wrote a article about how unprecedented this kind of loss of control by authorities is, which can be found here.

In the first months of this year alone, many images of North Korea have been appearing for the world to see, just as last year broke records for the number of North Korean refugees making it to South Korea. While the flood of images is likely to continue, the flood of refugees to the ROK likely will not; that will be dealt with in another post.

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