North Korea Steps up Inspections of Chinese-Made Television Sets

2014-08-26
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A television frame grab taken from North Korean TV on December 29, 2011, shows Kim Jong Un attending the mourning service for late North Korea leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.
A television frame grab taken from North Korean TV on December 29, 2011, shows Kim Jong Un attending the mourning service for late North Korea leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.
AFP PHOTO/NORTH KOREAN TV

Authorities in North Korea are stepping up inspections on households with television sets imported from neighboring China, specially targeting LCD sets with USB ports and remote control functions, in Pyongyang’s latest attempt to prevent citizens from accessing foreign media, according to sources.

North Koreans living along the Chinese border believe that such inspections are meant to block them from watching the Asian Games to be hosted by arch-rival neighbor South Korea.

Imported television sets are capable of receiving foreign broadcasts.

North Korea had earlier threatened to pull out of the Sept. 19-Oct. 4 Asian Games after Seoul refused to cover the cost of accommodating a large team at the event, but finally decided to send 273 athletes and officials tot he Games.

As of mid-August, Pyongyang’s censorship unit, known as “109 Sangmu,” has been visiting “every” household in Yanggang province, which borders China, to inspect their television sets, a source told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The source said censors had removed USB ports on the LCDs and deliberately broke equipment on the TVs so that viewers could not use remote-control devices.  

Aside from better display quality, LCD television sets have features that can link multiple external devices, including USB flash drives on which North Koreans illegally download South Korean soap operas and other entertainment as well as information on developments overseas.

Foreign broadcasts and CDs and DVDs are prohibited in North Korea, where television is the most accessed media platform. Approved TVs and radios are programmed to receive only official channels in the reclusive country where there is effectively no Internet and the Intranet is tightly monitored.

Unpopular move

Sources said some residents had resisted the move by authorities to remove the USB terminals from the LCD sets.

Some of them hid their TVs or just tried to fend off inspectors, said another source in Yanggang province, who also declined to be identified.

The source said the government had more thoroughly inspected residents’ LCD television sets than analog TVs because the former come with the capability for watching foreign programs while operating at a low voltage.

“The price of a Chinese-made LCD television on the market varies from about U.S. $50 for a 5.5-inch (nearly 14 cm) portable set to about U.S. $500 for a 42-inch (107 cm) set,” said a resident of North Hamgyong province.

The source said that merchants secretly sold portable LCD television sets so viewers could watch foreign programs on the units.

Elite privilege

Those considered “elites”—people with political or economic influence and financial means greater than that of average citizens—usually have access to advanced types of media technology, including USB drives, according to the consultancy group InterMedia.

Such technology makes it easier to access, conceal, and share foreign content, especially for those who live along the border with China.

Many North Koreans watch foreign programs saved on USB devices, which are compact and easy to conceal from government inspectors, said the InterMedia report, released in 2012 and commissioned by the U.S. State Department.

Despite strict regulations and severe penalties, North Koreans—especially the elite—have had greater access to news and other media outside the government-controlled media.

Although Internet access remains tightly controlled, access to radio and DVDs are commonplace along with television in border areas.

The report also noted that more North Koreans had access to TVs sets capable of receiving outside broadcasts, despite official regulations that require televisions to be fixed only to certain national channels.

Reported by Sung-hui Moon of RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jina Lee. Written by Roseanne Gerin.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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