North Korean Tour Guides Demonstrate Growing Knowledge of Life in the South

2015-10-21
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South Korean actors of the popular soap opera, 'Cheer Up, Mr. Kim,' which featured as a major supporting character a young North Korean defector in Seoul, in a file photo.
South Korean actors of the popular soap opera, 'Cheer Up, Mr. Kim,' which featured as a major supporting character a young North Korean defector in Seoul, in a file photo.
AFP PHOTO/KBS

Tour guides in impoverished North Korea are demonstrating an increasing amount of knowledge about living standards in South Korea, suggesting that information about the rival nation is widely available despite efforts by the regime to crackdown on its spread, sources said.

According to an ethnic Korean of Chinese nationality, “tour guides showed a greater interest in South Korea” during his recent four-day visit to North Korea, which included trips to the capital Pyongyang, the Kaesong joint industrial zone in North Hwanghae province, and the demilitarized zone’s “truce village” on the border with the South.

North Korean guides “inquired about every detail” of life in South Korea, the source told RFA’s Korean Service, adding that they referenced the names of recent South Korean TV dramas and asked him whether the standard of living in the South was really as good as it is portrayed in the soap operas they had seen.

The guides also referred to specific scenes and asked about the endings of shows from South Korea, he said, suggesting that although North Korean authorities have stepped up a crackdown on the possession of South Korean soap operas and music, residents of the North are frequently exposed to Southern culture.

The source said he had been surprised when, during a trip to North Korea a year earlier, tour guides asked him whether South Korea was an agrarian or industrial economy, so he was shocked to find out how knowledgeable the guides had become about the South since then.

His recent trip also showed how much the guides were willing to risk their personal safety to satisfy their curiosity by asking foreign visitors about the South, he added.

Elite understanding

A second source from North Hamgyong province, which borders China, told RFA that knowledge about life in South Korea is also shared among members of North Korea’s elite, especially judicial officials who “pass around South Korean soap operas confiscated from the public and exchange their impressions with one another.”

Additionally, he said, North Korean business executives are significantly more aware of the progress in South Korea than the average citizen.

“Although [regime leader] Kim Jong Un tries to isolate North Korea by completely blocking information from the outside, he cannot shut the mouths of businessmen traveling in and out of China and others who go abroad,” the source said.

“North Koreans have a real interest in and a substantial understanding about life in South Korea, so it is hard to stop them [from seeking out more information],” he added.

Other sources also suggested that members of North Korea’s business class and other elites have a better grasp of what society is like south of the demilitarized zone.

“Because executives and their families are in much more frequent contact with South Korean dramas and radio than other members of the public, they have a clearer idea about what South Korea is like,” one source said.

“Executives and members of the intelligentsia tend to understand the level of development in South Korea based on detailed statistics, rather than simply relying on cultural content or speculation,” he said.

Forbidding foreign media

Reports about the increased understanding of life in South Korea come amid an intensifying effort by authorities in North Korea to improve the reclusive nation’s tourism industry as a means to earn foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime.

But the push may have an adverse effect on the government’s ability to maintain an iron grip on the flow of information in the country, where citizens are routinely punished for accessing foreign radio and other media.

Kim is believed to be particularly sensitive about information from the outside world getting into North Korea because of its ability to undermine his regime’s propaganda efforts and threaten his support base—made up largely of the country’s elite.

North Korean authorities have long tried to block South Korean soap operas, movies, and music from entering the country in an attempt to keep unwanted foreign influences from seeping into the Hermit Kingdom.

In November 2013, media reports said authorities publicly executed some 80 people in a wave of capital punishment across seven cities, many of them for watching foreign media.

In August this year, after two South Korean soldiers were maimed by North Korean landmines planted in South Korean territory, the South responded by ending its 11-year moratorium on propaganda broadcasts across the demilitarized zone.

North Korea responded to the broadcasts, which described the high standard of living enjoyed in the South, by threatening war. The two sides reached a compromise in which Pyongyang expressed regret over the landmine incident and Seoul agreed to end its broadcasts.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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