The North Korean problem has been defined largely by the nuclear question, and to a lesser extent by humanitarian and human rights concerns. But as events in the Middle East remind us, information (and information policy) should play a larger role in our thinking about the country.
In our new book on North Korea, ‘Witness to Transformation’, Marcus Noland and I asked a sample of 300 refugees living in the South about their access to foreign sources of information in North Korea. We divided the sample by the time they left the country. This allowed us to compare the views of those who left during or after the famine with those who left during the 2000s.
Over time, we find more of the refugees report watching or listening to foreign media. A falling share (and practically none leaving in the most recent period) report having access to foreign media but declining to watch or listen. These responses suggest an increasing willingness to take risk and to engage in what James C. Scott calls “everyday forms of resistance.”
Respondents had a particular interest in foreign news. The share consuming foreign news reports was almost 30 percentage points higher than the share consuming foreign entertainment products. Despite the appeal of South Korean soap operas and music, citizens are also interested in alternative sources of information.
We found that access to information was correlated with political attitudes. Those who listened to foreign media had more negative assessments of the regime. Perhaps those with more negative views of the regime are more likely to listen to foreign news. But we suspect the relationship goes both ways: the availability of alternative sources of information undermines the effectiveness of government propaganda.
The consumption of foreign media is but one aspect of a much larger phenomenon of engagement in private economic activities. As The Daily NK documents regularly, the market has come to play a rapidly expanding role in North Koreans’ lives. But the market and access to information are linked in important ways. In a state socialist economy, both the workplace and government-supplied housing allow close government surveillance of the population. The market, by contrast, is a semi-autonomous sphere of activity that escapes these constraints to some extent. Small restaurants and the provision of other services are not merely businesses; they provide the space for communication.
A crucial issue for the future of North Korea (as for other authoritarian regimes) is the extent to which these activities lead to a robust and independent civil society or even opposition activity. Despite the adverse views of the regime, our interviews do not suggest that criticism or opposition to the regime was communicated openly.
The control of the regime over information from outside the country is also clearly much greater than in Egypt, where the revolution was broadcast through satellite dishes, Facebook and Twitter. We do not yet see the organizational basis for such a response in North Korea; few of our respondents believed that anti-regime organization was taking place.
But information can play an important role in forcing the regime to accommodate civil society even if the regime does not change. For example, information makes it more difficult for the regime to claim economic successes, or even to blame the country’s economic woes on a hostile environment. Information also makes it more difficult to mobilize the public through ideological appeals alone.
What would an information policy to the North look like? We should actively support and finance academic, professional, and student exchanges to the extent that Pyongyang will allow. Getting people out of the country is one way of getting information in.
But a people-focused information strategy should be part of the US and Korean policy toward the country. What kind of information? We do not need our own propaganda; North Koreans are capable of making their own judgments. But balanced news, including on what is going on in North Korea itself, is one place to start. So is educational programming.
But democracies also thrive on debate, and there is no harm in broadcasting our differences as well. Political programming that highlights partisan differences on major policy issues may provide more insight on how a democratic society works than an effort to paint a uniform picture.