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Defectors lift curtain on North Korea’s information blackout

December 18, 2016 at 1:51 PM EDT
North Korea’s totalitarian government exercises tight control of all media consumed within its borders to maintain power over nearly 25 million citizens. But some who have escaped the country are waging an information war, smuggling media on USB sticks in hopes of helping North Koreans learn about life outside the country. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Karla Murthy reports from South Korea.

By Mori Rothman and Karla Murthy

KARLA MURTHY: North Korea has been ruled by the totalitarian regime of the Kim family dynasty for the last seven decades, handing power down from grandfather to father, and now son Kim Jong-Un.

The Kim regime has maintained its grip on North Korea by imprisoning its enemies and by controlling and censoring the mass media — newspapers, TV, radio, with only a privileged few getting access to the internet.

TV shows on state-run media tout the achievements of North Koreans and their leader. Even at the border, anthems praising the Kim regime are blasted into South Korea, as we saw and heard on our recent trip there. But in the last few years, North Korean defectors based in in South Korea have been undermining the country’s information blackout.

Just a few miles from here, nearly 25 million North Koreans are living under total government censorship. Activists have been smuggling in foreign TV shows, movies, e-books to give North Koreans a view of the world outside their tightly controlled borders.”

One of those activists is Kang Chol-Hwan, a North Korean defector.

In 1992, Kang says he bribed a border guard and fled across the border into China — the route most defectors use to escape.

KANG CHOL-HWAN: We are people who lived in absence of freedom. We know how precious it is. I want to give all these people their freedom, and the opportunity to live has humans. These are my friends, my family, and my fellow North Koreans.

Today, he’s the director of a non-profit called the North Korea Strategy Center based in Seoul, South Korea’s capital. Formed in 2007, his group pays Chinese smugglers to send USB drives filled with prohibited, outside media into North Korea.

He says, even though North Koreans lack internet connections, they can watch smuggled movies and TV shows on their computers or on Chinese video players with USB ports, like these, called “Notels.”

KANG CHOL-HWAN: We send various content from stories on human rights, general information on South Korea, to images depicting the average American.

KARLA MURTHY: Or a fictional version of the average American: TV shows like “The Mentalist” and “Desperate Housewives.” Kang says scenes like this one from “NCIS” that show police officers reading suspects their rights are especially useful.

KANG CHOL-HWAN: It helps them to realize that in the outside world, even the criminals have rights.

KARLA MURTHY: There are a handful of groups like Kang’s operating under the belief that exposing North Koreans to outside media weakens the regime.

KANG CHOL-HWAN: What North Korea really fears, is their people becoming aware of their suppression.

KARLA MURTHY: Your strategy of sending these USB sticks over there, how do you know that strategy is working?

KANG CHOL-HWAN: We regularly monitor the response through those who are able to move across the China-North Korea border more easily. If we find that a television drama that we sent has been banned, we know that it has been impactful.

KARLA MURTHY: In fact, government interviews with defectors entering the country reveal that most were exposed to some outside media in recent years.

Kang Chol-Hwan also knows from personal experience how outside media can dramatically alter one’s world view. As a young man in North Korea, he got a hold of a smuggled radio that picked up “Voice of America” and other broadcasts from South Korea.

He says that was how he learned the truth about the Korean War — that North Korea had instigated it- a fact the regime kept from its citizens.

KANG CHOL-HWAN: In North Korea, we’re taught that it was the U.S. and South Korea, who attacked the North. I never had any doubts about this information before. But after listening to the radio, I learned what the North Korean government had been telling us about the war was not true. This myth allowed the North to hold the South responsible for the war.

KARLA MURTHY: Would have happened if you were caught listening to foreign broadcasts?

KANG CHOL-HWAN: You would have been branded as an anti-revolutionary. Then, you would be sent to an internment camp, but if you were repeatedly caught, you would be executed.

KARLA MURTHY: Kim Heung-Kwang knows that risk well. He’s also a defector living in South Korea. But in the North, he actually worked for a government task force that went door to door confiscating smuggled outside media.

KIM HEUNG-KWANG: When we caught these perpetrators, I felt a sense of protecting our nation’s morals, and making the nation safer.

KARLA MURTHY: He says many people he caught spent months or years in prison camps, which he now regrets.

KIM HEUNG-KWANG: Once, we received a call that three university-aged kids were watching a movie on a CD. When we got to the house, they didn’t open door for us. So we broke down the door to get inside. These kids were not criminals; they didn’t steal, or murder anyone. It was done just to prove that they were in possession a foreign movie. And it was done in such brutal fashion. When I think about it now, I am very ashamed.

Over time, Kim began to take a huge risk, keeping and sharing the media he’d confiscated. He also started reading banned books- like All the Shah’s Men about the 1953 coup in Iran- that made him question the regime. Then in 2003, Kim was caught by the government for lending movies to a friend. He was sentenced to a year of hard labor.

KIM HEUNG-KWANG: At first, I thought that I had made a mistake. I thought that as a government official who was in charge of protecting North Korea’s laws, I had done a poor job. But time on the farm was strenuous, and unrelenting. I began to question why I was suffering so much.

KARLA MURTHY: When he was released in 2004, Kim says, he decided to defect, taking another risk by bribing a North Korean border guard to let him cross into China. Today, Kim runs “North Korean Intellectuals Solidarity,” another group that traffics outside media into North Korea.

Kim takes a different approach by making his own videos recording of South Korean homes and markets to show North Koreans how well other people live. Also a computer science professor, he’s developed a stealth USB drive that can avoid detection by appearing empty when initially connected to a computer.

KIM HEUNG-KWANG: But the North Korean government became aware of this stealth drive and created a program that was able to detect this USB. In retaliation, I created software that would block the program, and it eventually became game of cat and mouse.

KARLA MURTHY: Do you worry that you’re putting North Korean’s lives in danger if they get caught with some of these materials?

KIM HEUNG-KWANG: All North Koreans know the risk of all their actions. Despite the potential punishment they know they will receive, there are many people who actively search for these materials.

Yeonmi Park grew up in North Korea and says watching outside videos changed her perspective of the world. She says, as a child, all she learned from watching state-run media was love for the Kim regime and North Korea.

YEONMI PARK: They don’t show us if our team loses. We win the Olympics. We win the, you know, World Cups. We win everything.

Park says North Korean school children are fed a steady diet of anti-American propaganda and are taught to refer to Americans as “bastards.”

YEONMI PARK: In math book says, you know, there are four American bastards. You kill two of them. Then how many American bastards left to kill. a And as a child I had to say, “Two American bastards.” And that was my education.

KARLA MURTHY: But Park saw a different view of the outside world through DVDs her parents were able to buy on the black market, Hollywood movies like “Pretty Woman,” and “Titanic.” She says watching these movies were more than entertainment; they made her think differently about her life in North Korea.

YEONMI PARK: I never heard my father was telling my mother that I love you. But in the movie man tells woman I love you. Right? And those things were never allowed for us to express to each other than the dear leader. So of course watching this information helped me to understand the outside world a little bit, that I realized there was some humanity out there.

KARLA MURTHY: That understanding gave her hope for a better life. After her father was imprisoned by the government for smuggling industrial metals, her family fell into poverty and faced starvation. In 2003, when she was 13, Park’s family paid a smuggler to sneak them across the border into china.

YEONMI PARK: I think that was the most horrifying part in my journey — the uncertainty, that you don’t know when you will be safe again in your lifetime. So we were just running and hoping somehow things might work out.

KARLA MURTHY: It took two years travelling through China, sometimes on foot, but eventually, they made it to South Korea.

Today, Park is studying at Columbia University in New York City, with access to a world of information.

YEONMI PARK: Every story was propaganda to brainwash us about the Kim dictators.

KARLA MURTHY: And she’s become a human rights activist, speaking out against the North Korean regime. She also wrote a memoir about her escape.

YEONMI PARK: Now I am free. And I have to learn all about freedom. What does it mean, actually?

KARLA MURTHY: Park says although the Hollywood movies she watched as a child didn’t fully prepare her for life outside the country, they can be a spark for her fellow North Koreans.

YEONMI PARK: Other lives can be possible on this Earth. But they just don’t have information right now. They don’t know who they are. And they don’t know what they are capable of. So we just have to show them what they can be.