Authorities in North Korea are scrambling to figure out new ways of limiting access to information about the outside world as communications technology becomes more advanced.
A new report released Wednesday by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) details how the North Korean government has been reacting to the increased access to information. Merely jamming shortwave radio broadcasts is no longer enough in the smartphone era, so the authorities have had to find innovative ways to slow the infiltration of information from outside.
Authored by journalist Martyn Williams, who has been following North Korea’s adoption of communications technology and media for more than two decades, Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive focuses on three ways that North Korea is dealing with its outside information problem: the legal system, technology, and propaganda.
The report is based on interviews with 41 North Korean escapees living in Seoul, and independent research that includes analysis of North Korean media.
“The mass of foreign content that has entered the country from the mid-2000s onwards has led to a curtailing of hard sentences for all but the most serious crimes,” Williams wrote in the report.
During a media event to launch the report, Williams said that laws have become more lax because there are too many offenders these days.
“It’s not that the government is necessarily giving up, I think what it is, is it’s more of a reaction by the government, that they realize they are losing this war,” he said.
“They can’t prosecute everybody, they can’t put everybody in jail because there are just too many people,” Williams added.
The report shows how many who are caught watching or distributing foreign media are able to escape punishment through bribery, which has become more rampant in recent years.
“Driving this willingness of officials to accept bribes is the changing North Korean economy and social system. As the State economy has weakened, vital services, such as the public distribution system for food, have been cut and that has affected everyone, including security officials,” the report said.
It explained that commonplace bribery has created a two tiered system wherein the rich can afford to consume content but the poor have much more at stake if they are caught.
“If you get caught watching South Korean movies, you’re supposed to go to prison. For those people of less-fortunate financial backgrounds, they wouldn’t readily watch South Korean movies, but for people who are rich enough to pay a bribe then they would consume South Korean media,” said one interviewee in the report.
Paying to get out of trouble also appears easier to do the farther away from Pyongyang offenders are when they are caught. This is because economic hardship is more pronounced in rural areas.
To catch people in the act, police will raid houses unannounced.
In the past this was fairly easy, and police could just cut power to the areas they wanted to search, then enter homes and look for VCRs or DVD players with tapes and discs that could not be ejected. Advances in technology have made it more difficult, as physical media can be stored on micro SD cards, which are smaller than a fingernail and much easier to hide or smash if discovered.
Another way police catch offenders is through street inspections, but this has also changed in the smartphone era, Williams said.
“These days when there is a street inspection, as well as checking someone’s pockets, they’ll also ask for a cell phone, and they’ll ask for the password to the cellphone,” he said.
“So they will go through the cellphone and they’ll look at the pictures on the cell phone, they’ll look at videos on the cellphone, they’ll look at chat messages you’ve been sending to your friends, both to see what you’ve been talking about, but also to see language you have been using that would indicate you’re using some South Korean colloquialisms or something like that. So people have to be very careful with what they’re doing with their smartphones,” he said.
But even if the authorities are able to catch people in the act, the focus of punishment has shifted from the media consumer to distributors, the report says.
Williams notes that North Korea is attempting to increase the production values of its domestic media to create content that can be more engaging. When foreign media began producing content in high-definition, it became far more aesthetically appealing to viewers than anything produced by state media.
According to the report it was not until mid-2019 that news programming on the state-run KCTV began broadcasting in HD, but viewers still prefer foreign media because KCTV’s content is “dry, propaganda-heavy and cannot compete with more interesting content from overseas.”
Williams also analyzed news broadcasts to see how North Korea preferred its people to see the outside world. During the press event, he played an example of KCTV’s foreign news coverage, which he said “paints a picture of the world that is in constant chaos.”
The news broadcast, from Dec. 11, which Williams said was typical of North Korean coverage of foreign news included stories about a clash between Israel’s military and protesting Palestinians, a shooting on a U.S. military base in Florida, and violent protests in India.
Williams said after the clip that in analyzing more than a year of these broadcasts, it is safe to say the outside world is always presented as scary and dangerous. The news broadcasts carried reports about weather disasters worldwide, shootings, crimes and mass demonstrations in the U.S.
“One of the ways that they’re countering all this information coming in, all of the stories show people suffering around the world or people who are in conflict with their leaders.”
Williams also said that the government approves certain types of media from abroad, such as sports or computer games, as they are nonpolitical diversions. The government believes that if consumers are preoccupied by playing simple games on their phones or watching Premier League soccer, it will divert their attention from foreign TV shows and movies.
The report also describes in detail some of the ways that the North Korean authorities are able to use technology to prevent the spread of outside information, particularly through their ability to monitor cellphone activity and file sharing.
North Korean smartphones all have an application called “Red Flag” running in the background that keeps a log of webpages visited by users and randomly takes screenshots. These can be viewed, but not deleted with another app called “Trace Viewer”
“The system is sinister in its simplicity. It reminds users that everything they do on the device can be recorded and later viewed by officials, even if it does not take place online. As such, it insidiously forces North Koreans to self-censor in fear of a device check that might never happen,” the report said.
A method to prevent the spread of media files that interviewees described in the report was file watermarking, a method by which every device that a particular file was played on is recorded in the file’s data.
“North Korean smartphones and other devices leave a tag on USB [flash drives] so they can trace which computers or mobile devices have viewed them. People in North Korea prefer to watch videos using foreign devices,” an interviewee said.
As the focus on punishment has shifted from the consumer to the distributor, it has become easier for authorities to discover distribution networks through the watermarks on the files.
Information campaign needed
David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said Digital Trenches drove home the point that the North Korean government is most afraid of information, and that finding ways to provide more information to people in North Korea should be a major objective of the international community.
He said there were three basic stories that all people in North Korea need to know.
“One is the corruption in their leadership, especially the Kim family regime. Next of course is, you talk about information about the outside world, especially the free and democratic and prosperous South Korea. And then of course is third a story of their own human rights. The Korean people in the North have their human rights denied in order to keep the Kim family regime in power,” said Maxwell.
Quoting Jung Pak of the Brookings Institution, Maxwell asked, “Who does Kim Jong Un fear most? The United States or the Korean people living in the North?”
"They’re afraid of the Korean people living in the North. More afraid of them than the United States. And I would add that they’re afraid of Koreans living in the North armed with information, especially knowledge about the South,” said Maxwell.
Another discussant agreed that the report showed that North Korea considers outside information a threat.
“What the Kim regime fears most is their citizens getting access to information about the outside world,” said Thomas Barker, a lawyer who has advised and represented North Korean escapees pro-bono, even helping some acquire U.S. citizenship.
“Because getting access to information about the outside world, it plants in the heart of a North Korean the desire to be free, and the understanding, even if they can’t articulate it, the understanding that they are not really free. And it gives them a desire to escape North Korea,” Barker said.