How Information and Technology are Changing North Korea

A look at how information and technology are penetrating the censorship and repression of North Korea

Nat Kretchun is deputy director at Open Technology Fund, which supports internet freedom projects to empower people to access technology without fear of repressive censorship or surveillance. Until February, he was senior associate director at InterMedia, a global research consultancy, where he co-authored Compromising Connectivity: Information Dynamics between the State and Society in a Digitizing North Korea. This new report looks at how information and technology are penetrating the censorship and repression of North Korea (DPRK).

Compromising Connectivity builds on earlier research, which showed that North Koreans were increasingly willing and able to access forbidden information and foreign content, despite the risk of punishment. We asked Mr. Kretchun to discuss his new report and how North Koreans learn about their country and the world.

North Korea is one of the most closed societies on earth.  How were you able to learn how information is getting inside the country?

While North Korea remains one of the most difficult places in the world to research, increasingly there are means through which researchers can gain insights into life in the DPRK. 

In addition to a population of approximately 30,000 North Korean defectors residing in South Korea, who can provide details about their lives in the country, there are such sources of information as commercial satellite imagery and the accounts and observations of diplomats and aid workers who have spent considerable time in the country. These allow us to piece to together a better picture of life in the country than was possible just ten years ago.  

In 2012, you authored A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment, a groundbreaking study of how North Korean escapees reported accessing information.  What’s changed in the five years since then?

In some respects the trends toward greater access to information and media continue. More North Koreans are accessing more kinds of outside information than ever before.  

Yet, as North Koreans’ information consumption habits become more technologically sophisticated through the use of technologies such as USB drives and micro-SD cards, the government is taking great strides to curb the influx and circulation of outside information.  It has done so through traditional means like sending out specially-tasked security forces to crackdown on information consumers. They also have used new technologically-advanced means, including the development and deployment of highly effective and difficult-to-circumvent censorship and surveillance software for mobile phones and other devices.

What are the penalties for accessing forbidden media in North Korea?

Punishments for accessing media in North Korea are extremely wide-ranging.  They can be as harsh as execution or, in some cases, avoided by paying a bribe.  The particular violation, the status of the person who is caught, and who caught them all play into what the punishment could be.  The possibility of harsh punishment always exists and since Kim Jong-Un has taken power, sustained crackdowns on foreign media access have generally led to more severe punishments.

In recent weeks, North Korea has been all over the news with missile tests, changing economic sanctions, and the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, the leader’s half-brother. Would an average North Korean be aware of these stories?

The only sure way to know that the average North Korean will be aware of a piece of news is if it ends up in domestic state news in North Korea. Events like missile launches and nuclear tests appear in the state news as demonstrations of North Korea’s military prowess to its own people.  

When stories do not appear in the state news, they are likely to be reported on foreign radio broadcasts that reach DPRK from the United States, South Korea, and elsewhere.  Relatively risk-tolerant news-seekers who tune into these broadcasts will learn about the stories that way. If the news is sufficiently interesting or important, the news may spread from person-to-person through word of mouth.   

You describe a paradox in the report – on the one hand, North Koreans have more opportunities than ever before to learn about the outside world. But the regime is becoming increasingly sophisticated in its efforts to monitor information. Can the regime put the genie back in the bottle and really control these new and expanding channels of information?

The regime definitely cannot erase what its citizens now know about the outside world. Access to foreign media and information has fundamentally changed the way many North Koreans view the outside world and what propaganda narratives are available to the North Korean government as a result.  However, the regime still wields incredible power over its own citizens and exercises a huge advantage in its level of technological sophistication.  It does have the ability to make outside information extremely difficult to obtain through digital channels such as mobile phones. 

Can you comment on youth in North Korea and how they are using technology?  Is it safe to say that, like everywhere else, the younger generations are early adopters? 

Young North Koreans are certainly among the earlier adopters of new technologies in North Korea.  Particularly when it comes to more advanced technologies such as mobile phones and computers, young people who acquire these technologies tend to be eager to explore the devices’ full potential in a way not always true for older generations.  

Has their hunger for information and entertainment affected their loyalty to the system?

There are many factors that impact young North Koreans’ views of their government and the system.  However, it is safe to say that there are pronounced gaps between older generations who remember a functioning socialist system and the younger generation born after that system’s collapse. The kinds of information young North Koreans are exposed to at a minimum expands their worldview and complicates state narratives.  

The report describes how escapees are using technology to send remittances and information to friends and family they left behind.  How does an escapee send money to a relative back in North Korea?

In addition to legal cell phones that have been introduced across North Korea, illegal Chinese network cell phones provide vital links between North Korean residents living within range of Chinese signal towers and the outside world.  These phones, increasingly used in conjunction with legal phones, are greatly increasing the speed and geographic reach of personal communications and remittance delivery from abroad with the facilitation of brokers in South Korea, China, and North Korea.