North Korea's 'Unquenchable' Thirst for Foreign Information

Hyeonseo Lee and Jieun Baek discuss life in North Korea, the dangers of defecting, and how outside information is seeping into the country and changing young attitudes. (1 hr., 20 min.)

North Korea is oft referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom” due to its state-enforced isolation from the outside world. But the emergence of illicit markets is slowly eroding the information blockade, and perhaps even sparking a shift in people’s mindsets.

“The curiosity to learn about what exists outside of North Korea is unquenchable,” said Jieun Baek, author of the new book North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming A Closed Society. “If [the threat of] execution can't quench that curiosity, I have no idea what will.”

Speaking at Asia Society in Houston last week, Baek said that North Korea’s catastrophic famine in the 1990s — which killed anywhere from several hundred thousand to several million people — saw a breakdown of the public distribution system, which forced many people to look away from the government for their needs and toward private enterprise. Since that time, several hundred (technically illegal) marketplaces have emerged and matured across the country. This has yielded high demand for cross-border trade and foreign goods, including cultural and media materials.

“I argue that this active flow of goods and information coming into North Korea is now playing a central role in changing the central consciousness of North Korean citizens,” Baek said. “And it's sparking small but irreversible changes across this country.”

Hyeonseo Lee, who fled North Korea in 1997 and published the memoir The Girl with Seven Names, recalled that as a young girl she had a television that picked up stations from China. Because watching foreign programs carried stiff penalties including fines, prison, and even occasionally execution, she would drape her windows with blankets before watching. “China looked much more open and economically developed than my country,” Lee said at the event. “So I had perfect reason to doubt that my country was the best in the world, which is what I learned in school.”

Since that time, foreign information has become far more accessible to far more people due to trade in goods like USB sticks, DVDs, and modified radios, as well initiatives by activists that include beaming in radio signals and sending balloon-delivered packages into North Korea. In her interviews, when Baek asks defectors to estimate the percentage of people back in their hometowns that have access to foreign materials, she says most now guess around 70 to 80 percent. “Why are people risking their livelihoods to watch?” Baek asked. “Well, young people are the same in the U.S. or North Korea or elsewhere — young people will do what it takes to watch what they want.”

Lee said the materials that resonate best with North Koreans aren’t political or anti-government, as those tend to be rejected as propaganda. “The best thing is to send them messages as visual content,” she said. “South Korean dramas and Hollywood movies are best. No words are needed.” Baek agreed, saying that highly visual materials allow viewers to interpret what they’re seeing in their own way. “Some people will focus on fashion, some on the cars in the street, food, whatever,” she said. “That, I think is the type of content that's quite subversive.”

She added that this exposure to foreign entertainment is manifesting itself in a myriad of ways within North Korea — from fashion to courtship rituals — especially among the young “Jangmadang” (street market) generation that grew up after the 1990s. The exposure may even be sparking more substantive behavioral changes, like a higher tolerance for risk and a more entrepreneurial mindset. “They're covering for each other,” Baek said. “They're not snitching on each other as the previous generation did, and they're trying to protect one another in order to get what they want — to draw a profit from market activities and to serve their own interest.”

Baek noted that, in the long term, this could have substantial political implications. North Koreans are inculcated from birth to see the Kim family as Godlike figures and are taught that there is “nothing to envy” from the outside world — an almost religious mindset that’s difficult to break even among North Koreans that have lived abroad. But even simple things like K-pop and humanizing images can open gateways that lead to bigger questions for some people. “The cognitive dissonance that people experience when having repeat exposure to foreign information is messy, confusing, and sometimes very offensive,” Baek said. “But it's also exciting, and there’s no doubt the foreign information plants seeds of doubt in people's minds that will grow over time.” 

Watch the complete program in the above video.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Eric Fish

Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.