Suppression of Information Empowers North Korea’s Regime

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Joseph Kim
Joseph Kim
Program Manager, Global Policy and Expert-in-Residence
George W. Bush Institute

The absence of a press not only prevents North Korean citizens from realizing and maximizing their full potentials and liberties, but also poses significant security challenges for the U.S. government in its dealings with the North Korean regime.

During the Spirit of Liberty forum in 2017, President George W. Bush said, “No democracy pretends to be a tyranny. Most tyrannies pretend they are democracies.”

North Korea is one of the most oppressive regimes in the world – and I have witnessed this firsthand living there. The North Korean government denies this fact. But it is indisputably a repressive state when you consider that freedom of speech and expression are imperative foundations of a democracy. They are essential defining elements of a truly free society.

North Korea’s regime uses fear as a control mechanism, which includes arbitrary arrest, torture, and gulags to maintain power. But the regime does not rely solely on fear tactics. Its use of propaganda through movies, documentaries, and books play a much larger role in attaining absolute control over the population.

When I was a boy living in North Korea, I looked forward to 5:30 p.m. every day. That was the only time I could watch cartoons created and broadcasted by North Korean government. Ironically, the cartoons I enjoyed watching were part of the great state propaganda machine, which indoctrinated young boys and girls like me to hate Japan, the United States, and the South Korean government (but not its citizens). At the same time, they promoted reverence for Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea.

The absence of a press not only prevents North Korean citizens from realizing and maximizing their full potentials and liberties, but also poses significant security challenges for the U.S. government in its dealings with the North Korean regime. There is no American embassy in North Korea and accessing external sources of information is nearly impossible.

North Korea was a black hole for rest of the world and it still is in many aspects. But the information landscape on North Korea has changed. Many of North Korean escapees have shared their stories in public. Refugees’ testimonies, on economic hardship and human rights violations they witnessed and experienced have garnered public attention. These stories help intelligence agencies and the international community develop a deeper understanding about the regime.  

In addition to refugees’ testimonies, organizations like, NK News and Daily NK  provide greater understanding about North Korea NK News and Daily NK are online journalism organizations that focus on reporting on issues relating to North Korea. They obtain information within North Korea through their anonymous networks of informants to help us understand what is going on inside the regime.

Daily NK does a comprehensive job of reporting news and research about the development of markets in North Korea. NK News’ work on the regime’s internal politics and its foreign affairs analysis provide great information for academics and policymakers so they can better develop policy recommendations.

At the same time, North Korean citizens have gained unprecedented access to information outside of the regime, which subverts and weakens the power of the regime’s propaganda and legitimacy.

For example, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA) do an excellent job in delivering fair, objective, and accurate news about the world into North Korea. Their reporting provides North Koreans a window to the world. And the more information comes into North Korea, the more it will enable North Korean citizens to undermine the authority and legitimacy of the state’s propaganda.

Kim Jong-un is acutely aware of this change and it is difficult to anticipate what he will do to stop the spread of uncensored information circulating in the country. However, I am cautiously optimistic that change is irreversible because the regime can’t reverse people’s curiosity and desire to learn more about the outside the world.

There are number of practical ways you can participate to improve North Korea’s human rights issues.

  • Write letters to your local elected officers to increase funding NGOs to increase the flow of information into North Korea.

  • Participate in grassroots movements that raise awareness about North Korean human rights abuses and bring North Korean refugees from China to freedom. Liberty in North Korea is a great organization doing an incredible work both in raising public awareness but also changing many lives through its rescue missions.

  • Follow us on our website to learn Human Freedom Initiative’s effort to foster policies that integrates human rights and national security to support the North Korean people, including our North Korea Freedom Scholarship.