SEOUL—North Koreans manage to gain limited access to foreign media broadcasts in spite of increasing government crackdowns in the isolated Stalinist state.
A growing number are viewing or listening to media from rival South Korea.
"We clamped down on the people watching South Korean television sets, but it wasn't easy," a North Korean defector and former policeman who monitored North Koreans' viewing habits said.
He said channels fixed by the North Korean authorities could easily be altered to catch South Korean programming.
"You could watch South Korean television such as KBS and MBC in Haeju, Nampo, Sariwon, even in Wonsan," he said, referring to regions of Hwanghae province, just north of the border with South Korea.
"They reach also to the port cities near the sea. But you can't watch them in Pyongyang because it's blocked by mountains."
Police 'enjoyed' shows
He said the police themselves used to watch South Korean television "all the time" along with their superior officers.
"We would enjoy what we watched, but outside in public, we would praise the superiority of our socialist system. We knew it was rubbish."
North Korean radio and television sets are sold with channels pre-fixed to official media, but foreign broadcasts can still be heard, depending on location within the country.
"According to North Korean defectors interviewed who came to South Korea right after living in the North, educated, intelligent people in North Korea do listen to foreign stations despite the inherent danger," Huh Sun Haeng, director of the Center for Human Rights Information on North Korea, said in a recent interview.
And a former North Korean fisherman, now defected to South Korea, said listening to South Korean broadcasts was a factor that influenced his defection.
"I listened to South Korean radio broadcasts a lot," he said. "Most fishermen listen to the radio very eagerly for weather reports. That's why the authorities' inspection and monitoring of us was severe. Once you're on the high seas, the reception of foreign broadcasts, especially South Korea's, is so clear."
"Many of us listened to learn about the political situation, information on North and South Korea and the world, how North Korean defectors are living in the South, and North-South economic exchanges."
"We would learn about our own news—what's going on in the North—through a South Korean broadcast. That's how I got to know about Ryongchun train explosion [in 2004]," he said.
He said he made good money fixing people's radios, so they could get better reception of foreign broadcasts.
"I made good money readjusting channels on radios, or upgrading them with higher frequency parts for local people who want to listen to broadcasts other than the North's state-run radios. There were at least a few hundred people that I know of who listened to foreign broadcasts," he said.
He said no television reception reached the northern part of the country near the Chinese border, so people there watched recorded programs on videotape and video CD (VCD) instead.
The jamming of foreign stations yields only limited results."
Kim Kwang Jin
Experts disagree about how many North Koreans listen to or view foreign media output, but most agree the number is growing.
"This is certainly only circumstantial evidence, but the percentage of those tuning into foreign broadcasts could be up to about 20 percent," Huh Sun Haeng said.
Kim Kwang Jin, a North Korean defector and now senior fellow at South Korea's Institute for National Security, said many North Koreans listen to foreign media despite efforts by authorities to block and control information.
But he said that official controls are still tough, and that listeners need to be highly secretive about their listening habits.
"Because the receivers are fixed to a given frequency, control over radios that might be used to tune into foreign stations is strict. But there are North Korean intellectuals who listen to foreign broadcasts," Kim said.
Though officials conduct home searches for televisions, there have been no reports of similar searches for radios, Kim said.
"North Korea is still jamming foreign radio signals. However, the number of stations broadcasting into North Korea has dramatically increased, and their programming has been lengthened and diversified. So the jamming of foreign stations yields only limited results," Kim said.
Kim said many North Koreans now listen to foreign stations, adding that the trend is likely to continue.
"It is not easy to conduct round-the-clock jamming," he added. "The North Korean authorities jam foreign radio signals around the time more people are likely to be listening. But there are limits to that, as such jamming is not possible in all areas."
Fear of punishment
A 2005 survey of 300 North Korean defectors in South Korea found that 18 percent had come into contact with South Korean media while still in North Korea.
And North Korean defectors recently arrived in South Korea say those numbers are on the rise, although many people are still too frightened to risk receiving foreign broadcasts.
Kim Kwang Jin said he listened to foreign radio broadcasts on a radio set brought by a Korean Japanese. Reception was easiest at hotels catering to foreigners.
Many North Koreans have come to know South Korean culture through TV dramas made in the South, with the content of these broadcasts spread by word of mouth.
It is generally believed that one can be punished if caught listening to foreign broadcasts.
"Before the food shortages, it would have been 100 percent certain for people caught listening to foreign broadcasts to be punished," Huh Sun Haeng said.
"However, knowledge is now widespread that South Korea is developed and that living standards in China are good, and it is difficult for the authorities to completely block such information."
But North Korean authorities still try to strengthen surveillance even as their hold on the flow of information begins to weaken, he added.
South Korean videos are popular in North Korea, entering the reclusive country mainly through China. South Korean TV drama VCDs and tapes are copied and distributed inside North Korea.
According to Huh, the intensity of official clampdowns on such activities varies, but defectors report that the crackdown seems recently to have intensified again.
"The punishment for watching banned video material or for providing the equipment and venue for watching such material is imprisonment at a correctional facility. But until three or four years ago, those caught in the act would be sentenced only to three to six months of correctional labor," Huh added.
Kim said that as more and more North Koreans gain access to foreign media, authorities find it increasingly difficult to prevent all outside information from entering North Korea.
"If the sharing of information from outside sources results in major incidents, or if a certain trend of opinion resulting from access to such information is detected, the North Korean authorities will proceed with severe punishment," Kim said.
"However, if one is just listening in, the authorities will probably turn a blind eye to this type of violation."
Original reporting in Korean by Won Lee. Acting Korean service director: Francis Huh. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.