For the first time, the North Korean authorities are selling access to a television station for foreign currency. The Mansudae Channel – which sometimes broadcasts foreign movies and shows – was previously only available to elite residents in Pyongyang.
“While many residents are having a tough time economically these days, the rich are paying a lot for subscription to the Mansudae Channel,” said an inside source in South Hwanghae Province during a telephone call with Daily NK on March 9.
According to the source, the television channel available to all North Koreans is Joseon (Korean) Central Television. However, other channels are available to select populations. Only those who reside in Pyongyang have access to the Mansudae Broadcast Station, the Education and Culture Station, and Kaeson Station. The Mansudae Station shows old foreign movies from China and Eastern Europe every Friday and Saturday night. The demand for such content is said to be high.
“In North and South Hwanghae Provinces, we don’t receive the Kaeson channel signal very clearly, so some people are showing interest in the Mansudae channel. Furthermore, Korean Central Television shows lots of reruns and isn’t very entertaining, so comparatively, Mansudae is much more popular. You can get some news from the outside world and watch foreign movies,” the source explained.
On closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the North Korean authorities’ primary motivation for allowing residents to purchase access to the channel is to acquire more foreign currency.
“The installation fee to get access to this station is 650 yuan (a little over US $100),” the source said. “The fact that the fee is accepted in yuan and not North Korean won is evidence that it’s a foreign currency-earning operation.”
At current prices, 650 yuan is enough to purchase around 200 kilograms of rice. That is no small fee when put in the context of the average North Korean’s purchasing power. However, a source in North Hwanghae Province added, “In the border regions, there are people these days who make a good amount of money and they are interested in getting the Mansudae Station installed.”
“The authorities have anticipated that certain North Korean people will be willing and able to purchase the subscription at this price point. This means that the authorities have a firm grasp of the fact that foreign movies have become more popular over time,” she explained.
The maneuver could backfire because the additional access to foreign content could stimulate people’s curiosity for more, a potential source of difficulty for the authorities.
“The authorities are using every method and device in their arsenal to block residents from accessing foreign information. But now they are admitting that they need to reluctantly give permission to distribute more and more sources of foreign information,” said one North Korea defector on condition of anonymity.
“Movies that were previously watched in secret are now coming into the mainstream, and the authorities are allowing it. This will stimulate demand for foreign information to an even greater level.”