North Korea has a complete lack of independent domestic media. It is illegal to access foreign media and there are harsh punishments for citizens who violate this. But where there is a will, there is a way, and a growing number of North Korean citizens are demonstrating that they are willing to take risks in order to access external information and technology. A lot of this IT is being disseminated across the Chinese border, which is creating a demographic of increasingly well informed border livin’ North Korean citizens. Apparently in the next few years it might even be possible for these citizens to access China’s less regulated Internet using smartphones, which would certainly broaden communication channels into and out of the country. I keep trying to think of Western equivalents to the technological barriers and challenges that these citizens face, all I can think of is it’s like trying to steal your neighbours WiFi, or trying to illegally download a movie… still not really that difficult but if we fail, it doesn’t really matter because there are hundreds of other alternatives that we can explore… if you get caught even just listening to unauthorized foreign broadcasts or possessing dissident publications it is considered a ‘crime against the state’, which carries extreme punishments. These include hard labour, prison sentences and a death penalty. All I got for breaching copyright infringement was a ‘warning’ email…
Just like torrenting is becoming a more normalised behaviour in Australia, sharing and consuming information is becoming a more normalised in North Korea. Word of mouth is still the primary source of information retrieval and dissemination. When the regimes grip was tighter it was not uncommon for citizens to fear their neighbours as informants, who might relay information back to the state. However it has been noted that enforcement is becoming more irregular, with police and other forces often accepting bribes to look the other way. Defectors and foreign media informants have also noted that less North Korean citizens are reporting on one another to the state, allowing for the growth of underground networks where citizens can share media, information and technology.
I have discovered this sort-of media industry report of North Koreas changing media environment. While the data has been taken from a relatively small sample of North Korean defectors and foreign informants, it still provides a decent snapshot of what is happening in regards to media consumption behind that irksome iron curtain. A certain trickle-down effect/information hierarchy is in play due to the centrally controlled media distribution system.
It’s so interesting to compare the information and technology climate in North Korea to what I am used to and experience every day. It’s like having juxtaposing examples or a way to contrast the “then” and “now” of media technology development. As I mentioned, like back in the heyday, word of mouth is still the most vital source of information, with 79% of respondents identifying it has the most important. Most citizens obtain foreign DVD’s borrowed from friends and family, or purchased from a trustworthy source for a fee. Again, in my mind, I begin comparing this system of sharing ‘illegal’ media to that of illegal torrenting in Australia. However, instead of networking a relatively minimal range of tangible DVD’s across country borders, we can easily transfer gigabyte loads of ‘illegally’ gained data from one pal’s hard drive to another. In a very short space of time, with minimal effort and with no real impotent threat of punishment we can gain access to a very broad and diverse range of media. So, yes, in Australia I believe we have it pretty good, and once you have experienced what it’s like to easily access and consume media, it becomes extremely difficult for an authority to try and regain control of what the populace is consuming. I am not at all saying it is impossible, but North Korea has crossed the ‘Digital Rubicon’ and what I will say is it would be close to impossible for North Korea to revert back to it’s old way of doing things.