Since gaining power in 2012, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has strengthened the country’s crackdowns on “foreign information.” Recently, however, the Unification Media Group (UMG) released a report with testimony from North Koreans showing that despite these crackdowns most North Koreans are still accessing South Korean and other foreign TV dramas, movies and music.
The report, entitled “A Survey on the North Korean Media Environment and North Korean Exposure to Foreign Media,” was released by UMG on June 19. Of the 200 defectors interviewed for the report, 143 respondents (71.5%) said that it had become more dangerous to watch or listen to foreign media after Kim Jong Un gained power. A total of 150 of the respondents (75%) told UMG that they had witnessed someone being punished for watching foreign media.
A defector who left North Pyongan Province in 2018 told UMG that “The Ministry of State Security (MSS) or local police departments conduct raids or house searches. Raid teams shut down the power and take all the CDs found during a raid. There are a lot of North Koreans who’ve been arrested for selling or distributing South Korean videos, even if they don’t actually conduct that business on a full-time basis. People who sell South Korean videos face either execution or up to 10 years in re-education camps.”
A North Korean currently living in South Pyongan Province told UMG that “The authorities frequently check TVs and other devices [in people’s homes]” and that “The devices are generally so small that the authorities tear apart the house to find them, and if they find devices that have traces of foreign media content the devices are immediately confiscated and the people in question are punished.”
The man also said that “Group 109 generally manages these raids” but that “other local law enforcement officials can drop in at any time to conduct a search.”
North Korean authorities are concerned that foreign media will create a rift between the regime and the people. Group 109 was specifically created to monitor and crackdown on the sale, distribution and viewing/listening of foreign media content.
The man told UMG that “Recently, the MSS has also been given the authority to conduct similar raids” but that “Regardless of how many raids they do, foreign information will continue to spread inside the country because people want it.”
Most North Koreans have access to foreign media despite government crackdowns, the report found.
A total of 91% of the respondents in the report said that they had watched South Korean and foreign videos while in North Korea.
A defector who left South Hamgyong Province in 2018 told UMG, “I really wanted to see what the outside world was like. At first, I didn’t even go to work, I just watch TV all day” and that “Young people want to watch movies and dramas, and to imitate the K-Pop dances they see. They also watch baseball or soccer games.”
The report also found that most North Koreans used small portable media players (called notetel in North Korea) or DVD players to watch foreign media content. North Korean authorities do not confiscate these devices provided that their radio and television channels set to accepted frequencies. The devices are popular because of their compatibility with SD cards, USBs and DVDs.
According to the report, 76.5% of respondents used DVD players, 20% used notebook computers, and 11% used desktop computers to view foreign media.
A defector who left South Pyongan Province in 2018 told UMG that when agents from Group 109 conduct raids, “they check the channels people have been watching on their TVs, so watching TV is not easy in North Korea. People who watch videos in secret, like us, watch them using these media players players because they’re so easy to have around.”
He also noted that “Portable multimedia players are small so they can be carried around easily. You can place DVDs in them and they have TV receptors.”
North Koreans were also found to be using portable media players because of the country’s poor electricity situation.
A North Korean defector who left Ryanggang Province in 2015 said that “DVD players are easy to watch movies on and don’t eat up a lot of energy so I used it a lot” and that “North Korea’s electricity situation is so poor that people use solar panels to charge DVD player batteries.”
“Most families have a DVD player and people say it’s the ‘era of the DVD machine,’” said another North Korean who currently lives in Ryanggang Province. “We can’t watch state television due to the lack of electricity but we can watch DVDs on the DVD player.”
The report found that most defectors obtained foreign videos from friends and family members, and watched the videos together on either DVDs (55.5% of respondents), USBs (44% of respondents), or SD cards (22.5% of respondents – respondents were allowed to select multiple answers).
The UMG report concluded that “Most respondents acquired their videos from friends and relatives through USBs or SD cards, and this was because stronger crackdowns by the authorities led to a decrease in the sale of videos at local markets and a rise in transactions between people who trusted each other.”
Moreover, the report found that when North Koreans viewed foreign media, that experienced a sparked a curiosity toward South Korean society.
A total of 50% of the respondents said their curiosity toward South Korean society began after watching South Korea videos in North Korea, while 35.5% of the respondents said they enjoyed singing South Korean music.
North Korean perceptions may change thanks to the foreign information and media that flows into the country, which is largely closed off from the rest of the world.
“The first step to improving human rights in North Korea is providing North Koreans with information,” UMG President Lee Kwang Baek said. “There’s an imperative to analyze the media environment of North Korean society and use this analysis to provide North Koreans with an even more diverse range of information.”
UMG operates a radio station that sends broadcasts to North Korea as part of its efforts to improve the flow of outside information into the country.