Information and Technology: Seeds of Change in North Korea

I know the past few posts I have said I will be discussing the illegal consumption of information and technology in North Korea, and I will! But first I think I needed to research where the government is at with their IT developments, what resources and infrastructure they provide, what is actually legal and who can actually access it. So, one of the biggest surprises when I started all of this research on North Korea was the abundance of material. Because North Korea is such a tightly controlled and isolated population the fairly recent introduction of information and technology, like mobile phones and a communications network, is an unprecedented development. People want to talk about it, which certainly makes reading and finding out about it easier than expected.

It was only in the last decade that the domestic closed Internet, Kwangmyong, and the mobile phone network was created. They are such a normalised aspect of our society, we probably have 10-year-old kids running around with iPhone 6’s. Meanwhile in North Korea it is only the countries upper class and elite who have access to 3rd generation mobile phones. North Koreas network, Koryolink, only allows for domestic calls, these are all monitored and tracked as closely as possible by the State Community Department. However, with now almost 1million cell phones in North Korea, the conversation between private citizens is becoming harder to follow (this is still a measly number compared to South Korea, where there are more cell phones than people).

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I think one of the reasons I find this research so interesting (umm epiphany?) is because I know I am going to be able to follow the story in North Korea for decades to come. For the last three years of this media degree I have been educated on the potentials and abilities of communications technologies to provide freedom and a movement of ideas, which can often result in liberating change. I feel as if North Korea is at the start of this journey. While it is still very early days and the future is always uncertain, I am going to witness the strengths and limitations of new media technologies, within a nation, that only a decade ago was completely debilitated in that field.

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On that note, I think it is important for me to understand why North Korea decided to expand the use of IT, even though it poses such a risk to the rigid control of the regime. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, the North Korean economy is weak. The DPRK’s goal is to increase productivity domestically and attract international investment. Of course, these newly installed technologies will only reach their full potential if the DPRK opens up to the outside world. At the moment, North Korea has created something of a “mosquito net”, allowing for a flow of foreign investment while blocking infiltrations of foreign ideas, news and culture. As a result of this structure North Korea is currently stable and the possibility of a ‘North Korean Spring’ is pretty far-fetched.

I still believe that North Korea is moving in the right direction, but that is just the opinion of someone studying media and technology in a Western country. The notion of a modern revolution in North Korea is extremely tricky, in the West we are obsessed with the logistical utility of technology (it is very useful) and the legal importance of free communication (it is a right), but I think we may under-appreciate the psychological and emotional power of the tools we’ve created. As seen in the Arab Spring, social media has the power to diminish the loneliness inherent in discontent. Imagine being a North Korean and having the desire to overthrow the North Korean regime. Practically, how could you even organise anything large-scale enough to effect change. Psychologically, you would feel disconnected from others; unable to communicate on a large scale with fellow like-minded people. I think I would feel as if I was alone in my stance, maybe I was wrong? I feel as if I would be overwhelmed with a sense of alienation and paranoia. Especially after decades of education, propaganda and policy that have been put into place to make rebellion a deep source of shame and mortal fear. On top of this, many North Koreans are against any change, with the modern and materialistic ways of their South Korean cousins representing a polar opposite to their traditional, deep-rooted familial, political and traditional values. So yep… change in the DPRK = complicated to say the least.

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This week my idea of what was going on in North Korea has been challenged and transformed. There are so many more complications to change in North Korea than what I originally thought, I guess my research was still kind of at surface level. Anyway, information and technology still has the force to challenge the DPRK, pushing for either reform or collapse. The thing is, North Korea has an ancient system in place for preventing political change. These foundations run very deep and I guess to shake them you would need a vast majority from all levels of the rigid caste system. At this stage, mobile phones, new markets and foreign DVD’s may be the sprouts that lead to this change, but for now they are just seeds… so next week let’s see where these ‘seeds’ are being planted.

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2 comments

  1. Fantastic area of research you’ve got here, and an interesting read to boot! Those quirky North Koreans never cease to amaze me in their dissonant desire for both classical societal control and technological advancement.

    Just playing devil’s advocate here, but I think there is more to be said autoethnographically on this topic, particularly a dissection of your idea that increased ubiquity of communications technology is positive progress for North Korea. Both you and I view technological advancements as progress, but how is this engrained assumption linked to our own cultural views, and why do you assume North Koreans, or members of other cultures not as technologically reliant as our own, need ‘seeds’ of our own notions of progress externally planted to enable growth?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re completely right! This is a very good topic to be studying now, as you will be able to follow this for years and years after you finish this project. It is crazy to hear about the amount of restrictions that North Korea has over its internet and mobile phone use.
    When we compare to us, in Australia, where as you said, there are 10 year olds running around with iPhone 6s (completely unnecessary), it is astonishing.

    Like

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