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During Soviet times, the Kremlin had a policy of carefully rationing the release of American movies. The authorities kept the number of Hollywood films limited. And they kept a careful eye on the political message, giving priority to plots which showed the United States at its worst.
Soviet audiences thus saw an America where the rich exploited the poor and the powerful persecuted the weak, and decent, ordinary people were forced into a life of crime.
Yet as emigres reported, filmgoers often got a message much different from the one the cultural authorities intended. They understood the stories as entertainment, not a lesson in dialectics. And they zeroed in on the details. Kitchens, for example. Ordinary Soviets had communal kitchens; Americans, even under conditions of exploitation, had spacious kitchens of their own.
The Soviet experience reminds us just how subversive the mundane facts of daily life in free countries can be for societies where censorship and isolation are the order of the day. There are few such societies in the age of the internet. The worst may be North Korea.
The emergence of a modest information revolution — albeit with 20th century technology — goes an important part of the way towards answering the question of what can be done to undermine dictatorship in North Korea. In the past, governments and even human rights advocates were skeptical of actions meant to stimulate change due to Pyongyang’s totalitarian thoroughness. Now the outlines of a strategy, based on the tried-and-true approach of reaching people with alternative sources of information — can be discerned.
In recent years, the steady hemorrhaging of “defectors” has enlightened us about the hellish life for the people of North Korea. We know about the labor camps, the man-made catastrophes, the imprisonment of generations of family members. An Orwellian nightmare state in the 21st century.
North Korea is unique in that it is the first state to have perfected its apparatus of control to the point where it has seemed invulnerable to outside influence. Yet there recently has been evidence of chinks in the totalitarian armor.
A groundbreaking study by InterMedia reports a surge in North Koreans’ access to information from outside. The sources include, for those living in border zones, television from South Korea and China. More important, however, are DVDs, mostly Chinese, that have made it across the border.
The availability of DVDs is indirectly due to the North Korea’s economic failure. Waves of famine finally compelled the regime to relax control of trade and open up the country to business people (and smugglers) from China.
The videos are geared to entertainment. But as with Hollywood films’ impact on Soviet audiences, videos made in nearby Asian countries carry what, for the leadership in Pyongyang, is a dangerous message about the lives of prosperity and, in South Korea, freedom that people next door enjoy.
Foreign radio broadcasts, like the American service Radio Free Asia, are also exerting influence, principally with elites.
In the past, America was successful in conveying news about life in democracies to the people of closed societies. In speaking to audiences in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, we stressed the free institutions and prosperity in neighboring countries like Austria. That was a powerful message for people who could have enjoyed a similar life were it not for Communism.
For North Korea, then, the most potent images are clearly those that portray ordinary life in South Korea. For decades, Pyongyang’s propaganda has pounded home the idea of life in the south is something akin to what life really is like in the north, with poverty, mass unemployment, and rampant exploitation by elites.
Increasingly, North Koreans have come to realize that the regime depiction of life in the south is, quite simply, a lie. But the power of the message about freedom lies in the details.
The more North Koreans learn about the realities of life outside their hermit dictatorship, the weaker the regime’s ability to control the political message. We should do whatever necessary to give the North Korean people access to information about the real world.
Arch Puddington is a fellow in Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute and vice president for research at Freedom House. He is the author of “Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. “
Q&A with North Korean escapee Peter Oh
Peter Oh is a 2019 North Korea Freedom Scholarship recipient who is pursuing his master’s degree in international policy and practice at George Washington University. He and his younger brother escaped North Korea in 2000 in search for food. He lived in China for three years before seeking asylum in South Korea with the help of Christian missionaries. He became a reporter for Radio Free Asia in Seoul and in 2010 was transferred to the Washington, D.C. office to report on North Korean issues.
Q&A with North Korean escapee Debby Kim
Debby Kim, a two-time North Korea Freedom Scholarship recipient, is a sophomore biochemistry major at Wheaton College in Illinois and an aspiring doctor. She escaped North Korea when she was 13 years old.
Q&A with North Korean escapee LK*
LK, a three-time North Korea Freedom Scholarship recipient, is an electrical and computer engineering student at a university in Illinois. A former member of the North Korean Army, LK remains anonymous to protect family members still living in North Korea.