North Korean workers living abroad drawn to foreign media

North Korean workers at a textile factory in Jilin, China in 2017
North Korean workers at a textile factory in Jilin, China in 2017. Image: Daily NK

The North Korean authorities actively prevent overseas workers from accessing “external information” but some are using smartphones to connect to the internet to read the news and access other information, Daily NK has learned.

“Most North Korean officials use the internet with smartphones they buy in China, and watch South Korean news or the latest South Korean dramas,” a North Korean managerial official in China recently told Daily NK.

“North Korean managers in China have smartphones to conduct business and manage their workers. The phone bills are expensive, but they use smartphones because they’re better quality and some buy Samsung phones.”

Despite being expensive, smartphones are popular among North Korean workers because they can access information about where they are living and how to navigate the areas they live in.

In China, smartphone use is not restricted like it is in North Korea, where internet access is strictly off limits to the majority of residents. This has enticed many overseas North Korean workers to buy smartphones while abroad.

“I hear people who speak to others on smartphones using South Korean-style expressions and they are very knowledgeable about what’s going on in South Korea,” the source said, adding that North Korean workers can exchange information about almost anything unless it directly criticizes North Korea’s leadership.

“I watch a lot of news about the inter-Korean relationship through Yonhap News,” he said.

“No one actually told me to watch it. In fact I was told not to watch it during a criticism session, which got me curious.”

The North Korean authorities are focused on preventing overseas workers from accessing such information, but they are unable to completely block the sense of curiosity that inevitably surfaces.

Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean diplomat based in the UK who defected to South Korea in 2016, remarked during an interview that North Korean diplomats stationed abroad desire information about North Korea from foreign sources.

As previously reported by Daily NK, radio programs produced for North Korean listeners are also popular among North Korean workers dispatched abroad.

Some North Korean workers who have gained access to outside information have become disappointed in the information provided by the North Korean authorities, according to a separate North Korean source working in China.

“I felt many new things after coming to work in China. China is doing well for itself but I could see through the internet that South Korea is doing even better. That made me angry toward the Party,” he said.

“I was angry because of all the difficult times I had to face. What was the reason for all of it? I’m not the only person that feels this way.”