Summary of “A Quiet Opening”

InterMedia published a fantastic report in 2012 about the information environment in North Korea. Here’s a quick highlight of some of the key points, but please read this very informative study! It’s available here.

InterMedia: A Quiet Opening

A Quiet Opening is a 2012 study by InterMedia that highlights the changing information environment in North Korea (NK) and assesses levels of access to outside information within NK. It examines the general media environment in NK, focusing on television, DVDs, and radio, and new information technologies such as mobile phones, computers, USB drives, and MP3 players. The report is based on survey data from a 2010 BBG Refugee and Traveler Survey in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region, PRC (sample size: 250) and a 2011 Recent North Korea Defector Survey (sample size: 420) and subsequent structural equation modeling (SEM) analysis.[1] A key finding is that a strong relationship exists between outside media exposure and positive perceptions held by North Koreans of the outside world.[2]

KEY POINTS:

  1. Word of mouth is still the most important source of information in NK.
  2. DVDs are the most common and perhaps most impactful form of outside media in NK.
  3. Interviews and survey analysis indicate that North Koreans’ specific knowledge and particular beliefs about the outside world are most affected by the relatively greater quantity of information broadcast through outside radio or TV news.
  4. South Korean and other foreign films – for entertainment – have much higher production values than NK media because they are seen as credible since they are not propaganda.
  5. Korean Chinese and Chinese in Korea play an important role in circulating prohibited goods, particularly DVDs, inside NK.
  6. DVD sellers appear to be state officials and wealthy traders since they enjoy some level of protection from law enforcement.
  7. Listening to foreign radio is more dangerous than viewing TV or DVDs, but it is the only nationwide source of real-time outside media in NK and the only source of outside news for those unable to receive TV broadcasts from China or South Korea; listeners tend to be more male and somewhat older than audiences of other types of foreign media; most listening occurs at night.
  8. A primary reason for listening to foreign radio is to hear about international politics because of economic implications, such as effect on exchange rates and contraband trading. 
  9. Interviewees believed that those with greater economic means had significantly more access to outside information than those with fewer economic means.
  10. North Koreans value new information in radio broadcasts, especially about the NK leadership and ROK.
  11.  Demand outweighs supply of foreign media.
  12. “Fewer citizens appear to be reporting on each other” for watching, listening, and possessing foreign media. This seems to indicate increased trust/reliability among groups of people.
  13. SEM analysis of survey data collected from recent NK defectors indicates that those with exposure to outside news or entertainment media are more likely to be favorably disposed toward South Korea and the U.S.
  14. Outside media exposure positively impacts beliefs and attitudes about the outside world.
  15. NK authorities appear to “step up” jamming radio signals around significant events.
  16.  Generally, a strong mix of shortwave (SW) and medium wave (AM) gives a broadcaster the greatest chance of being heard in NK.
  17. Maintaining a strong radio presence is of great strategic importance to the ROK and the U.S.
  18.  Elites in North Korea: elite listeners rely on radio for hard news and analysis otherwise unavailable in NK; political elite enjoy special status and privileges; enjoy access to more outside information; earliest adopters of new technologies such as computers, USB drives, MP3 players, and mobile phones from China; have ability to secure more energy, purchase luxury goods, including media devices.
  19.  Less-educated, non-elite, rural North Koreans tend to favor cultural fare and entertainment programs in foreign radio content.
  20. Since 2011, there is a domestic mobile phone service operated by Egyptian firm Orascom, but this network is monitored and limited to NK. However, there is a growing illegal network along the Chinese border areas with the use of illegal Chines mobile phones. InterMedia reports that illegal mobile phones have greatly impacted trade, defections, and the general flow of information coming in and going out of NK. Illegal mobile phone use consisted of primarily making calls to China. Interviewees did not send or receive text messages or take pictures or video with their phones.
  21.  Unlike a free-tuning radio or modified computer, it is not illegal to own a computer, MP3 player, or USB drive. So, “legal devices can very easily and discreetly be used to access foreign media content.”
  22. To maintain tighter control, TVs, radios, computers, and tape recorders must be registered with authorities. Telephone lines are wiretapped, and mobile phones must be subscribed at Koryolink offices.
  23. Recent developments, such as an internet server in Pyongyang and over 1000 registered “.kp” domain names, indicate NK is developing a more sophisticated internet strategy. 


[1] SEM analysis: often used to assess the effects of media exposure on behavioral change.

[2] SEM analysis of survey data collected from recent North Korean defectors indicates that those with exposure to outside news or entertainment media are more likely to be favorably disposed toward South Korea and the U.S. This confirms that outside media exposure positively impacts beliefs and attitudes about the outside world.

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Information Suppression: A Violation of the Right to Information

Kim Violates North Koreans’ Fundamental Right To Information Through Information Suppression

North Korea in the dark

North Korea in the dark

This blog delves into the “fundamental human right” to information because North Korea denies this right so severely by suppressing information in and out of North Korea.[1] The right to information is a right dating back to the early days of the United Nations (UN), which was founded in 1945 as a solution to the atrocities committed in World War II.[2] “From the beginning of its establishment, the United Nations had proposals put forth to adopt measures to ensure freedom of expression and information and to control propaganda.”[3] In fact, “before any human rights declarations had been adopted, the General Assembly passed Resolution 59(I), which stated ‘[f]reedom of information is a fundamental human right and is the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.’”[4]

Additionally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed in 1948,[5] at Article 19 states, “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”[6] The ICCPR, to which the DPRK is a signatory, also states at Article 19 that there is “the right to ‘freedom of expression. . . includ[ing] freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.’”[7]

The DPRK has signed onto several human rights treaties, as mentioned above, but has proven through egregious human rights violations that its signature has no merit. The fact that the international community knows strikingly little about the DPRK’s human rights abuses –because it intentionally keeps its borders closed off to the world – is in itself evidence that there are potential human rights violations, if none other than violation of the right to information. Kim’s acts of information suppression are abusive and these are, in turn, grave violations of the right to information. According to a 2008 published report by the UN High Commission for Refugees:

North Korea remained the most repressive media environment in the world in 2007. The one-party regime of top leader Kim Jong-il places severe restrictions on media freedom, attempts to regulate all communication, and rigorously limits the ability of North Koreans to access information. Although the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, in practice constitutional provisions for obeying a “collective spirit” restrict all reporting not sanctioned by the government.[8]

What Information Do North Koreans Receive?

North Koreans are cut off from the rest of the world almost entirely, but the Kims – from previous leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il to current leader Kim Jong Un – provide them with their own version of the truth through the use of propaganda. This propaganda, however, does not compensate for the information that North Koreans are denied; they still do not have the right to information in the DPRK, and that is why Kim violates this human right. In the DPRK, there is a Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers Party of Korea. Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, ran this Department while Kim Il Sung was still alive and in power. Today, the Propaganda and Agitation Department continues to serve openly as the organization responsible for shaping information and distributing and disseminating propaganda in the DPRK.

Propaganda has been a constant in the lives of North Koreans for over six decades now. In fact, all North Koreans under the age of 55 have been subjected to intense indoctrination since primary school.[9] As a result, two or three generations have already grown up under the tyrannical influence of the Kim regime. The North Korean State pushes propaganda in school, at work, on the radio, in posters, in movies, and any other medium it can. The basic principles of North Korean propaganda – the greatness of Kim Il Sung and his family, juche nationalism, virulent attacks on the US and South Korea – have remained unchanged.

From a young age, North Koreans are told to believe that Americans are terrible, monstrous people who kill Korean babies and want nothing more than to wage a war of aggression against the DPRK. North Korean children sing a song in music class called “Shoot the Yankee Bastards”:

Our enemies are the American bastards

Who are trying to take over our beautiful fatherland.

With guns that I make with my own hands

I will shoot them. BANG, BANG, BANG.[10]

North Koreans have special education classes where the juche/self-reliance ideology is reinforced by recitation of the Kims’ speeches which proclaim their greatness:

‘Establishing juche means, in a nutshell, being the master of revolution and reconstruction in one’s own country. This means holding fast to an independent position, rejecting dependence on others, using one’s own brains, believing in one’s own strength, displaying the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance,’ Kim Il Sung proclaimed.[11]

The propaganda techniques of Kim Jong Il spread far and wide; every household is required to have two photos hanging up – one of Kim Il Sung and one of Kim Jong Il (note: now, likely one of Kim Jong Un as well). It is a punishable offense, up to execution, for not having these photos fully displayed and polished.

Furthermore, the radio and television stations only show North Korean programs that are modified and controlled by government propaganda employees. Before Kim Jong Il’s death, these propagandists ensured that all scripts sent the message that Kim Jong Il was a generous leader and did good things for his people. A North Korean caught listening to a foreign radio station or receiving a foreign television station reception can expect to be taken to a work camp/prison where he will probably die from starvation, disease, or exhaustion. He can also expect that his family will face a similar fate, and it would not be uncommon to be beaten and tortured, if not executed eventually.[12]

The Kim regime also strictly enforces adherence to the juche ideology through the use of local informers who are deemed the most loyal to the regime. Typically, there is one informer/head of the community, who is responsible for reporting any disloyalty to the Korean Workers Party.[13] This reporting technique makes it extremely difficult for people to speak out against the regime, lest they become victims of interrogation, torture, reeducation work camps, or have their families suffer.


[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights art. 19, Dec. 10, 1948; See Ban Ki-Moon, Freedom of Expression…A Fundamental Human Right: Message on World Press Freedom Day, UN Chronicle, May 3, 2010, http://www.un.org/wcm/content/site/chronicle/cache/bypass/home/archive/webarticles2010/world_press_freedom_2010?ctnscroll_articleContainerList=1_0&ctnlistpagination_articleContainerList=true.

[2] United Nations, UN at a Glance, http://www.un.org/en/aboutun/index.shtml.

[3] Sarabeth A. Smith, Note, What’s Old is New Again: Terrorism and the Growing Need to Revisit the Prohibition on Propaganda, 37 Syracuse J. Int’l. L. & Com. 299, 314 (2010).

[4] Id.

[5] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, supra note 1.

[6] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, supra note 1.

[7] Sarabeth A. Smith, Note, What’s Old is New Again: Terrorism and the Growing Need to Revisit the Prohibition on Propaganda, 37 Syracuse J. Int’l. L. & Com. 299, 326 (2010).

[8] Freedom House, Freedom of the Press 2008 – North Korea, 29 April 2008, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4871f623c.html %5Baccessed 4 April 2011].

[9] Andrei Lankov, The Official Propaganda in the DPRK: Ideas And Methods, http://www.fortunecity.com/meltingpot/champion/65/propaganda_lankov.htm.

[10] BARBARA DEMICK, NOTHING TO ENVY: ORDINARY LIVES IN NORTH KOREA 121 (Spiegel & Grau 2009).

[11] Id. at 44.

[12] Id. at 67.

[13] See U.S. Library of Congress, The Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), http://countrystudies.us/north-korea/57.htm.