A woman and her daughter their respects at statues of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung (L) and late leader Kim Jong Il in P...

How media smuggling took hold in North Korea

Since the mid-20th century, tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled their country amid food shortages and a tight government rule, risking death if they are caught.

In recent years, some of these defectors, who now live in South Korea, have sought to undermine the grip of the Kim regime on North Korean citizens. They transfer media, including American movies and TV shows, to USB drives and smuggle them to North Korea, where they are passed around to citizens who have no access to the internet or any information outside the country.

Jieun Baek, a Ph.D candidate at Oxford University who has conducted research on North Korea, spoke with NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Karla Murthy about the effects of this information inside North Korea’s borders. An excerpt of their conversation is below.

How did outside information first start spreading in North Korea?

The North Korean information landscape as it stands today is sort of a longtime evolution of what has been happening since the ’90s. And the mid-’90s is a really important marker for North Korean modern history because that’s when the big famine hit. The government called it the Arduous March, but it’s essentially the biggest tragedy that happened in North Korea, resulting in the deaths of 1 to 2 million people.

With this incredibly awful period, market activity, mostly illegal, sprang up naturally because people had to depend on themselves and each other to survive [instead of] the public distribution system implemented by the government. And so with that increase in market activity and the proliferation of goods being sent in from outside, mainly China, information naturally flowed in from the outside world.“There’s a very strong tension between the reality that the government is trying to impose on its citizens and the reality that actually does exist among its citizens today.”

Increasingly, people inside North Korea started to realize that there is a world outside of their country that was very different from what they were taught by the government. And so this demand for foreign information — initially having to do with media, dramas, movies – -grew very rapidly.

And it’s been evolving since then. What’s been evolving is the type of media being in demand, the methods of how it’s been smuggled in, [the] methods of information being smuggled out of North Korea, as well as who is involved, how money’s exchanged in this very demand-based phenomenon, and mostly important in my opinion: the irreversible changes that are taking place in this country due to this unprecedented access to foreign information that the citizens been exposed to thus far.

How much control has the government had over information inside the country?

So the government, like most former dictatorships, attempted to have complete control over its citizens. Attempted to seal off its population from the outside world in order to propagate their fabricated history and their version of current events.

But inevitably, like any other government, the people are smarter than the government. And they started to realize that there are ways to access information that the government did not permit. And so there’s a very strong tension between the reality that the government is trying to impose on its citizens and the reality that actually does exist among its citizens today. It’s quite clear that the monopolization of information that the government is attempting to have over its citizens is quickly eroding.

Why is that erosion threatening to the regime?

This is probably the biggest weakness that the government has. And that’s evident because of the way they react to foreign information coming in, versus other threats like economic sanctions or verbal condemnations by other countries.

The government has been able to sustain their regime over the past seven decades based on the history of their government, their country, and [the] world that they created and were able to distribute. Their cult and personality-based country, their religion-like political system surrounding the Kim family — all of that is predicated on this history that they have created.

And so the fact that the citizens are now exposed to these lies is very threatening to the North Korean regime. Because without the citizens believing in the state’s history and reality that they have fabricated, they don’t have anything to base their internal system on. And so basically an informed citizenry is fundamentally antithetical to the foundation that the North Korean regime would like to maintain in order to keep power in the Kim family’s hands.

In general, what are the controls that the North Korean government tries to exercise on information in the country? And how do they do that?

So there’s extreme forms of deterrents and punishment. And there are very clear laws that the North Korean government has imposed on its citizens since the inception of the state, having to do with the forbidden nature of people consuming information that the government does not sanction.

And so legally, that’s very clear. And if you talk to North Korean defectors, people ranging from 10 years old and older, they’ll say, “Oh yeah. Everybody knows that you’re not supposed to watch…” It’s a reality.

And so what happens if you don’t abide by those laws? It ranges from inordinate fines to confiscation of goods in your house. Those are definitely the weaker forms of punishment. [Or] detention in detention facilities. In the worst cases, political prison camp. There’s five different types of labor camps and detention facilities. The political prison camps are one form of punishment that people can face.

Worst case scenario is death by execution. Usually executions in public arenas are reserved for scapegoats. Public executions are less prevalent only because more and more people are accessing information and they can’t really execute everybody. And so that form of worst punishment is relegated to scapegoats. People essentially who are making copies of materials, distributing, and especially distributing the worst forms of information such as things that are very political in nature.

So those forms of punishments are used to deter people. That’s how the government tries to exercise its control, trying to prevent people from watching it. But even execution is not sufficient in trying to prevent people from watching information.

If you don’t have access to the black market or if you’re not willing to take those risks, do you know anything outside of what the government is telling you?“The North Korean people — they’re just people. And they’re incredibly smart. And they’re trying to figure out how they could meet their needs while not getting in trouble.”

So North Korea is divided into nine different provinces. And it’s important to know that close to 75% of defectors who have settled in South Korea come from two provinces that border China and North Korea.

And so all the anecdotes, the stories and surveys that outsiders have access to based on defector interviews and surveys come from essentially a couple towns that produce defectors who are leaving. So a lot of the information that I know about what’s happening inside North Korea comes from very specific towns and locations in North Korea.

Given that caveat, even if someone does not have access to the black market, which is quite rare because the majority of citizens now depend on the black market just for survival. Food, clothing, other basic necessities all come from street markets. Even if someone were not to have access, I think word of mouth is consistently, and has been through human history, the biggest source of information that people rely on.

And so even if I as a hypothetical North Korean citizen who’s too poor to watch movies because I don’t have enough money to bribe and basically take the risk, I hear what other people are saying around me when they talk about movies or the latest show that they’re watching. I can see different behaviors that young people are trying to mimic based on what they’ve seen in films.

And more importantly, I could see where the goods that people are using are coming from. And so jeans, for example, are not a North Korean-made fabric. But if I see people wearing that, and even if I can’t afford that, I see people are wearing things that are coming from a different country. If it’s coming from a different country, I can then extrapolate why is that the case.

What can you get on the black market?

Essentially, you can get anything on the black market. There are different layers of the street markets. And so what is semi-legal now are things that are very basic to human survival. [You can get] food, non-political clothing, non-branded clothing. Maybe women’s cosmetics, hygiene products, things like this. So that’s what people can openly sell on the street markets. But then there are different layers of goods that people can get.

If you want very specific cosmetics from South Korea, for example, that’s a little bit more political because those are goods coming from the enemy country. American medicine actually is something that is very expensive on the market in North Korea, but it’s available. Which is crazy because we have all these economic sanctions against them.

Going back to media available — nowadays, a lot of the smugglers are usually men, who are involved in getting the goods from South Korean sources and then pushing it into the North Korean market. These people basically have a ear to the ground of what is in demand on the North Korea side. It’s quite common to see South Korean shows that came out last week, for example, to be available on the North Korean black market just a week later. And so it’s a very, very quickly moving, demand-driven network. It’s a profit-driven network. And so it’s not all out of goodwill.

It sounds like there may be a large demand for movies, TV shows, other entertainment inside North Korea.

Yes. I spoke with a lot of South Korean government officials whose job is to interview every defector who comes into South Korea. Basically to triage who is a spy and who’s not. And there are quite a few spies who are caught in this interrogation process.

But the South Korean officials, who are interviewing [defectors], see trends where almost everyone has exposure or has watched shows on a regular basis. And everyone, from citizens who don’t have any political jobs to local authorities whose job is it to inspect and catch people, they themselves are watching these illegal materials.

Have there been crackdowns on smuggling?

Yes, absolutely. It’s a regular phenomenon. It’s just I think the variation lies in the extent of the punishment and what types of alleged crimes are being cracked on at what given point. And so if there is some edict that comes down from Pyongyang and says, “Everyone go after this particular movie, or this particular show,” then there will be very specific crackdowns on that.

Or if people are being a little more brazen or a little bit more barefaced in their activity, the local authorities will start cracking down. There are known to have been small-scale riots.

I mean, not the Western-style riots where people are, like, throwing things around and, going after police officers. But there have been instances where when the local authorities are trying to close down markets ’cause they get too big — and some markets range from 400 to 1,100 stalls.

When they’re trying to crack down, [officers will] say, “Everyone, go home, or I’m gonna shut this down,” you’ll see women–these marketeers going after police officers and saying, “Are you gonna provide for me? Where is the money gonna come from?”

And that’s the type of behavior that we could not even imagine taking place in North Korea 20 years ago. Again, it depends on what alleged crime they’re going after. And some people are sentenced to camps. These camps do exist. And it’s one of the worst things that are taking place in North Korea.

Has technology impacted the way that the information has spread over the years?

Yeah. The North Korean people — they’re just people. And they’re incredibly smart. And they’re trying to figure out how they could meet their needs while not getting in trouble. And so North Korean citizens will try to outsmart the local authorities. And [authorities] will try to change their policies to try to clamp down on behavior that was previously not even known. This kind of cat-and-mouse game between residents and authorities has very inadvertently changed various storage devices and technologies that are being pushed into North Korea.

One example of that is, back in the early 2000’s, DVDs and CD-ROMs were in vogue in North Korea. And so these really cheap secondhand DVD players were being pushed in from China into North Korea for for quite cheap. And so North Koreans would go in the market, buy a DVD player from China, and then find all these various DVDs to play at home. They’ll turn off the lights and do all the things they need to do to not be seen by their neighbors. Keep the volume real low. Basically block out all the windows and watch a DVD.

Authorities were catching onto this. So they would go around and shut off the electricity in various small villages or one apartment building at a time. Shut off the electricity and then go knocking door to door. And they would bring with them an electrician, ask for their DVD player. And the electrician would unscrew the device. Beause without electricity, the resident can’t press the eject button to hide the DVD.

Residents became very privy to this, talked to their contacts on the black market, people inside South Korea. And that’s partly how USBs started to become popular. USBs became the replacement storage device for DVDs because you can take that out even if electricity is gone.

Why are taking these risks so important to some people?

Yes, there’s a lot of risk involved. Oftentimes, it’s a fatal risk. But the people who know that risk the best are the North Korean citizens who are watching it, consuming it, buying it, lending it, loaning it. They know very well, from a very young age, the risks that are involved. Yet they still do that. I don’t think there’s some big, grand political strategy, or some big intention behind watching a chick flick or some, you know, a rom-com. But it’s just sheer curiosity. We all as people, wherever we are in the world, want to know what we don’t know. And I think that fundamental element of human curiosity is what drives North Korean citizens to take such extreme risk to engage in an activity that seems very innocuous and mundane to outsiders but to them is such a big revelation to them.

Because they’re being exposed to things that are antithetical to what the government has told them their entire lives. And so I think that the fact the North Korean citizens of all ages and all backgrounds are taking such risk in and of itself is so telling that it’s just a very basic human trait, curiosity, that’s driving them to take that that risk.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.