The North Korean government is fighting hard to protect citizens from imported content, but the battle is far from over
Over the last few decades, the amount of foreign content flowing into North Korea has grown immensely. What began as a trickle of VHS cassettes from Japan in the 1990s has now become a wave of South Korean TV dramas, Hollywood movies, Chinese blockbusters, and more illicit content on USB sticks and MicroSD memory cards.
While much has been written about the smuggling operations, less time has been spent looking at the reaction of the North Korean state. Working with the Washington, D.C. based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, I studied how the government and party is responding. I spoke to experts and interviewed 40 escapees in Seoul, and the results of this work were published in late December as “Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive.” A copy can be downloaded from www.hrnk.org.
Among the main findings are changes in North Korea’s laws, a constant but little-seen propaganda battle against foreign information and a particularly effective re engineering of Android smartphones to prevent them from being used to consume illicit content.
A Changing Legal Battle
North Korea’s Criminal Code bans the possession, consumption and distribution of foreign content. But updates to several articles in the 2009, 2012, and 2015 editions of the code indicate the state is slowly losing its battle on the law enforcement front. In the last decade, the emphasis of the law has shifted away from consumers to focus on smugglers and distributors or those with destabilizing content. In the North Korean context, this means anything that attacks the regime or party, anything political, and all pornography.
The harshest penalties of up to 10 years in a mobile labor brigade are now reserved for supplying or dealing the content. This is effectively an admission that consumption of foreign content has become so commonplace that individuals higher up the distribution chain need to be targeted.
That doesn’t mean North Koreans can watch foreign content with impunity. No matter what the law says, this is still North Korea. Should a crackdown be ordered, the unlucky can find themselves facing a public trial and execution, no matter the letter of the law. Death penalties are also used in cases involving large-scale distribution or destabilizing content.
Citizens are also targeted in random street checks and house raids, but escapees told me it’s increasingly possible to escape trouble with a bribe. Bribery has exploded in the last few years, especially among local police and security forces (rather than provincial or national level forces).
As the state economy has weakened, the slow disintegration of the public distribution system has security agents feeling the pinch. At the same time, the rise of markets has brought private wealth to some ordinary Koreans, so it’s no surprise that bribery has flourished.
During the interviews that I conducted, I heard about bribes that ranged from a few dollars to over a thousand. This is a massive amount of money for someone earning the state salary of 50 cents per month, but is not necessarily out of the question if you have a successful private business.
Almost all of the illicit content that enters North Korea crosses the northern border from China. Shortly after Kim Jong Un came to power, border security was reinforced, and there’s now a new camera network that covers most of the border. It is both for conventional surveillance and to catch corrupt border guards taking bribes from smugglers. Guards are more regularly rotated now to prevent them from making local contacts more recognition that the battle against smuggling is being lost.
Keeping Their Minds Pure
At the heart of North Korea’s brain washing system lies the Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD) of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which liaises with the Organization and Guidance Department to ensure that all North Koreans are exposed to a consistent message that supports and reinforces party priorities. PAD oversees all cultural output in North Korea and is directly responsible for approving all the material in newspapers, radio and TV, posters on the street, song lyrics, theatrical productions, workplace meetings, and the education system. Anything that diverges from the message undermines the entire propaganda base, so it’s easy to see why foreign content represents such a threat to the regime.
Messages warning against accessing foreign content are never seen in media that reaches the outside world, such as Korean Central Television or the Rodong Sinmun newspaper. To do so would be to admit there is a problem. Instead, warnings are delivered in more private forums, such as the weekly meetings which all North Koreans must attend. These Saturday morning events usually contain a lecture about an issue of interest to the party. Sometimes an officer from the Ministry of Public Security will lecture on the ills of foreign content and why it shouldn’t be consumed, though escapees I talked to say the lectures were ineffective and boring.
Similar messages are carried on the third radio network the infamous “speakers that can’t be turned off” inside every household. In reality, they can be turned off, and are often out of service due to electricity shortages. But when they do work, the third radio network carries reports of neighbors caught with foreign content, including their names and addresses. The unsaid psychological message is that your neighbors are getting caught and you could be next.
North Korea’s TV news is a key propaganda tool, painting a picture of a perfect nation and a chaotic world outside. As part of my research, I cataloged foreign news from a year of KCTV news reports between June 1, 2018 and May 31, 2019.
Over the 12 months, I counted 388 reports broadcast on 140 days. The largest amount of reporting was devoted to stories about politics, scandals, or labor unrest in South Korea. This was always accompanied with still photos never video. This was followed by reports on China, usually positive news; Iran, typically government statements attacking the US; and Russia, which was usually military news. KCTV used wire service video for everything but the South Korean news.
After South Korean politics, the next largest focus was on the weather. There were many reports on storms, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters around the world. Then came military news, often from China or Russia; conflicts, usually U.S. or Israeli actions in the Middle East; and environmental news, mostly on climate change.
News from Japan was occasionally reported and it was usually about a crime, such as the May 2019 stabbing at a bus stop in Kawasaki. The underlying message of all of North Korea’s foreign news is clear: people all over the world are suffering or in conflict with their leaders.
The High-tech Response
North Korea’s response to digital technology is both clever and dynamic. There are now an estimated 5 to 6 million smart phones in North Korea, and while they all look like conventional Android phones, there’s a lot going on behind the screen.
First is an app that takes random screenshots and stores them in a database in the phone. Can you risk viewing illicit content never knowing when a screenshot will be taken? The database cannot be deleted, and the authorities include an app to view its contents a sinister touch that reminds users that everything they do on their phones might be captured.
There’s also a file watermarking system that adds a string of data to each opened file. The data is based on the phone’s serial number and becomes a part of the file. If the file is passed on to someone else, more data is added. This potentially allows security forces to build an entire map of how a file is distributed, revealing personal contacts between people and where the file originated.
An Android update forced on all users in 2012 added a digital signature system that only allows the playing of content that has either been created by the phone or has come from the government. This system stops phones from being used to watch smuggled video and has proved very effective as it covers a wide range of formats.
The phones also include a check performed at power up, just in case North Koreans attempt to hack their phones and disable the security systems. It ensures the central security files have not been tampered with and reboots the phone if they have.
With these security systems, the state has effectively locked down the device with the most potential for mass consumption of foreign media.
Social Engineering at Work
A lot of North Korea’s propaganda isn’t at all subtle, but there are a couple of examples of clever social engineering that steers people away from foreign content. One of the latest smartphones, the Daeyang 8321, has a catalog of 125 smart phone games. Many have no ideological value, so the question is: why? As we’ve seen globally, people who play smartphone games have less time for other media. In the North Korean context, this might be to draw people away from illicit content.
The state has also been slowly rolling out an IPTV system that provides all four Pyongyang TV channels live and a library of on demand content. Some of this additional content includes sports, such as European soccer, and statesanctioned foreign movies. Offering a wider selection of material to viewers appears to be an attempt to keep them within the state media ecosystem as much as possible.
In the end, I found that while the state undoubtedly has a fight on when it comes to protecting citizens from foreign content, it’s fighting back hard. While each new technology or innovation represents a fresh chance for outsiders to provide North Koreans with greater access to information, development and innovation will be essential if they want to stay a step ahead of the state.
Martyn Williams is is a journalist and researcher or North Korea
currently based in California. He is a former president of the FCCJ.