North Koreans are gaining greater access to foreign media that is changing their perceptions of the outside world, providing alternatives to domestic propaganda, and undermining the hardline communist state’s grip on information, according to a new report released Thursday.
Though the reclusive state has long relied on an information blockade to keep out unwanted foreign influences and shore up its control, a stronger flow of foreign content into the country is “laying the groundwork for a more open North Korea,” global research and consultancy InterMedia said in the report.
“North Koreans today have significantly greater access to outside information than they did 20 years ago,” and more than many Korea-watchers had assumed, said the U.S. government-funded study, titled “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment.”
The "Hermit Kingdom," consistently ranked by international watchdogs Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders as having the least free media in the world, still maintains an iron grip on information.
It jams radio signals, maintains its own cell phone network, does not allow public access to the Internet, and punishes those caught accessing foreign media.
But through DVDs of South Korean soap operas sold on the black market, Chinese cell phones with reception in some parts of the country, and radios and TVs tweaked to receive foreign broadcasts in secret, more information is penetrating the country’s borders.
North Koreans are also increasingly sharing this information by word of mouth among those they can trust, the study said.
Through such information, North Koreans are getting a better picture of the world beyond their borders, the study found.
“North Koreans are learning more about the outside world than at any time since the founding of the country,” it said.
And the new information is also changing North Korean perceptions.
Based on surveys of refugees, defectors, and travelers from the country, the study found that North Koreans’ increased exposure to outside media was closely tied to more positive beliefs about the outside world.
In other words, the more people learned about other countries, the more positively they felt toward them, undermining attempts by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime to block foreign views out.
“Ultimately, North Korea is losing control of how people are seeing the outside world,” Albert Kim, president of the Korea Economic Institute, said at an event for the launch of the report.
But more positive views of the outside world on their own will not affect a regime change, experts say.
Although the study found exposure to outside media was closely tied to positive beliefs about the outside world, it was not as closely related to negative views about the North Korean regime.
In other words, North Koreans’ exposure to overseas information did not always transfer into thinking poorly about their own country.
Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said the increasing flow of foreign information would not fuel any ouster of the current dictatorship.
“Providing information to the North Korean people will not bring down the political regime,” he said.
But, it could be one way to enable North Koreans to put more pressure on their leaders, he said.
However, the opening of the country’s media environment is still “illustrative of a potential long-term trajectory for change,” the study asserted.
Robert King, U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, said that it is vital to determine the type of information North Koreans need to help bring about greater accountability.
“How do we create information availability that limits the ability of the government to do what it wants? How do we put the constraints on the government that democratic societies suffer from?” King said.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.