Miniature radios smuggled in from China are in high demand in North Korea as people in the reclusive country desperately try to maintain contacts with the outside world following a crackdown on visual media, according to sources inside the country.
Authorities in the hermit kingdom have been relentlessly pursuing producers of cheap and easily copied DVDs featuring content like television dramas and movies depicting a better life outside the country’s borders, the sources said, and the highly concealable miniature radios are rapidly filling the void.
“A mass influx of miniature radios can be predicted to meet the skyrocketing demand in North Korea,” a source in Yanggang province along the border with China told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity.
The miniature radios now serve as the conduit through which news and culture from abroad—mostly China—flows into the country, he said. North Korean radios, by comparison, are locked to domestic, state-approved frequencies during the manufacturing process which toe the party line.
And while anyone found with one of the smuggled Chinese radios can be arrested for “espionage,” the units—which are roughly the size of two cell phones in width—are cheaper and easier to hide than the equipment needed to view illegal DVDs, the source said.
Additionally, he said the radios do not rely on power from North Korea’s spotty electricity grid, which regularly suffers from outages, and can last on cheap batteries available from most local markets for between three to four months at a time.
A source in Hamgyong province, also neighboring China, said that another advantage over DVDs is that radio programming provides listeners with a constantly updated source of information about life outside of the North, while content on DVDs is fixed and static.
The government keeps an iron grip on information in North Korea, where citizens can be severely punished for accessing foreign radio and other media or for using smuggled cell phones that operate on Chinese networks across the border.
Authorities also actively jam radio broadcasts from abroad, though their ability to do so is limited by the country’s power supply.
Another source in Hamgyong said that the crackdown on DVDs had recently led to a major shift in the cost of both DVD equipment and the smuggled miniature radios.
“The price of DVD players called ‘DVD’ and ‘Notel’ were approximately U.S. $65,” the source said, adding that the crackdown had caused prices for each brand to drop by nearly one-third to around U.S. $41.
Conversely, as demand grows, the cost of miniature radios is beginning to climb.
“The miniature radio used to be U.S. $4, but now it is hard to find even at U.S. $16,” he said of the units which typically are sold for around U.S. $1.30 in China—providing smugglers with a profitable markup.
Sources predicted that the flow of smuggled radios into North Korea would continue to increase through the next several months.
“With all of these reasons taken together, smuggling will certainly become very common, so that large quantity of miniature radios will enter the country this summer,” the second Hamgyong source predicted.
He said the proliferation of miniature radios in the country was likely to do more for North Koreans’ understanding of life outside their country than that of DVDs.
“The spread of miniature radios is a more serious headache for the North Korean authorities than illegal visual media,” he said.
North Korean authorities have long tried to forbid South Korean soap operas, movies, and music into the country in an attempt to keep unwanted foreign influences from seeping into the Hermit Kingdom.
In November, authorities publicly executed some 80 people in a wave of capital punishments across seven cities, many of them for watching foreign media, South Korean media reported.
Despite such punishments, more and more music and videos from South Korea have slipped through the country’s information blockade in recent years, as “Korean Wave” cultural exports from the South grew increasingly popular in other Asian countries.
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.