Information: The Bane of the North Korean Regime: Op-ed by Zachary Przystup (F14)

The Diplomat

On a nighttime satellite image, glowing lights from South Korea and northeast China suddenly disappear: at the thirty-eighth parallel from the south, and the Yalu River from the north. The dark expanse known as North Korea seems to render South Korea an island cut off from the Asian continent.  While North Korea is often referred to as a buffer state, its nocturnal invisibility makes it clear: Wedged between South Korea, the most wired country in the world, and China, the country with the most cell phones, North Korea has no buffer against digital communications.  North Korea’s information blockade raises some basic questions: How long can the Kim Jong-Un regime keep up its war against information? And does its survival depend on information deprivation?

Inside North Korea today, a quiet revolution led by a slowly opening media environment provides perhaps the greatest prospect for regime transformation.  The U.S. and South Korea should encourage this development to strengthen their negotiating position with Pyongyang, and to bring positive, if not dramatic, change to North Korea.

Over the past two decades, a steady trickle of outside information has widened the gap between North Korean propaganda and reality. The source of this change can be traced back to the 1990s, when a devastating famine killed between 600,000 and 2.5 million people. As North Korea’s public distribution system collapsed, informal markets sprang up. Today, these markets are the primary source of food and income for many North Koreans, as well as hubs where people can share sensitive information, foreign media, and electronic devices. Today more North Koreans are watching foreign DVDs and TV programs, listening to foreign radio broadcasts, and using illegal mobile phones than ever before.

Growing access to foreign media is changing North Koreans’ behavior, thoughts, and attitudes about the outside world—and their own country. In a subtle yet significant break from past behavior, North Koreans are increasingly watching illegal DVDs and programs with friends and family. This change in behavioral norms could signify a move towards greater trust and stronger social bonds among the people. As North Koreans become more aware of family members and friends who share their negative views about the regime, they may feel emboldened and more confident in sharing their own.

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