Go to Contents Go to Navigation

NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 79 (November 5, 2009)

All Headlines 10:52 November 05, 2009


Changes in View of Outside World by North Koreans

By Andrei Lankov (Associate Professor, Kookmin University, Seoul, Korea)

Following Kim Il-sung's death in 1994, North Korean society has undergone a major transformation. The economic collapse and famine triggered dramatic social changes: the emergence of semi-legal markets as well as partial disintegration of the old surveillance system. The end of the country's self-imposed information isolation can be counted among the most important manifestations of this transformation. This was not brought about by the deliberate efforts of some opposition and its supporters. In a sense, the self-isolation simply withered away.

Throughout Kim Il-sung's era Pyongyang leaders believed that one of the major conditions of North Korea's continuous survival was a strict isolation of the country from the outside world. For decades, the North Korean government went to great lengths to ensure the populace would have no access to unauthorized information from overseas. All communist leaders did their best to limit cross-border information flows, since they did not want their people to realize how much better off the 'oppressed workers of the capitalist countries' were. The North Korean regime enforced this self-isolation policy with unusual ferocity.

North Koreans are not allowed to interact with foreigners, including citizens of supposedly "friendly countries," in any form without clear authorization. Private foreign trips are either impossible or very rare. Non-technical foreign publications are kept in a special section of libraries, available only for readers with proper security clearance (no exception was ever made for China's People's Daily or Soviets' Pravda or other publications of supposedly friendly countries). It is illegal to have a tunable radio at home: all radio sets have tuning mechanism disabled, so only few official channels can be listened to.

These extraordinary measures are somewhat understandable: first, North Korea was poor even by the modest standards of the communist bloc; second, its major adversary was South Korea, whose population shares a common language and culture with North Koreans but enjoy a far higher standard of living. (Even according to the most conservative estimates, the gap in per capita income between the two Korean states is 17-fold). If the North Korean populace learns about South Korea's 'economic miracle,’about its transformation from rags to riches, this knowledge will inflict a serious (perhaps, even a mortal) blow to the legitimacy of the Pyongyang regime.

Therefore, for decades North Koreans were told by the official media that they were lucky inhabitants of an earthly paradise, that their lifestyle was envied by the entire world whose population suffered from hunger and terror under the yoke of the “capitalists, imperialists and landlords." Of course, in propaganda South Korea was presented as a 'living hell,' the worst place on earth. South Korean students, as their North Korean peers read in textbooks, had to sell their blood to pay exorbitant tuition fees, while the cities of South Korea were full of beggars and violent thugs, and most people lived in derelict huts.

However, in recent years the general tone of such North Korean writing has changed significantly. The old rhetoric has not disappeared completely, but nowadays there is remarkably less emphasis on North Korea's prosperity vs. South Korea's destitution. The reason for this change is clear: even professional ideologues know that the North Korean population is increasingly aware of the Chinese and South Korean economic success, so old propaganda is becoming increasingly unbelievable.

In the Soviet Union and other countries of the communist bloc, subversive knowledge about the outside world was largely delivered by radio sets which were used to listen to foreign broadcasts. In North Korea, foreign radio broadcasts seem to be less important, although they clearly have their own audience -- especially now, when small radios are smuggled in from China. Nonetheless, video tapes and DVDs seem to be playing a decisive role in bringing forbidden information to North Koreans.

VCRs first appeared in North Korea around 1990, but it was only after 2000 that prices for these and other products like DVDs dropped to a level which made them affordable for more North Koreans. Unlike radio sets, players have always been legal, and a DVD player came to be seen as a status symbol within North Korean society. In the areas near the Chinese border as well as in major cities, some 20-25% of all households might have a DVD player or a VCR at home. A cheap Chinese DVD player costs some $30-40. This is a large sum for the average North Korean who earns about $2 a month. Nonetheless, a moderately successful market dealer would have no trouble with paying this money.

Needless to say, the average owner of a DVD player does not use the machine to watch official North Korean films, those biopics of the Dear Leader and his extended family or uplifting stories about great deeds of the shock construction brigades. They prefer different fare, largely foreign thrillers and action movies, but also melodramas and romantic comedies. Not surprisingly, a very large part of these videos come from South Korea.

The parts of China which lay near the border with North Korea have a large ethnic Korean population. So, satellite dishes, usually used to watch South Korean broadcasts, are seen on many roofs there. Some entrepreneurial Chinese began to record the soap operas and movies and then sell copies to be smuggled to North Korea. Nowadays, when the border control is lax and border guards are eagerly looking for bribes, smuggling is neither particularly difficult nor dangerous.

These entrepreneurs are driven by purely financial considerations, but their activity is producing a deep impact on North Korea.

Since around 2000-2002, South Korean movies and, especially, TV series have become major hit in the North. As North Koreans watch them, they have grown increasingly aware of the affluence of South Korean lifestyles. They do not necessarily believe that they are presented a true picture of life in the South: after all, North Korean cinema has always grossly exaggerated the quality of material life in North Korea, so they expect South Korean movie makers to do the same. It is unlikely that most North Koreans, for example, believe that every South Korean family owns a car -- though this is a statistical fact which is also reflected in movies and shows. However, they look at things which cannot be easily faked, like the Seoul cityscape, and they have no doubt that the allegedly 'destitute' South is actually doing very well.

Another breach in the North's information isolation was made by the explosive growth in cross-border traffic. Since the mid-1990s a large number of North Koreans moved to China -- first, as refugees, later, as unskilled workers. In 1999 the number of the North Koreans illegally residing in China was estimated at 200,000-250,000. Nowadays, the numbers are smaller, perhaps, 30,000-40,000. Since most of these people go to China for a relatively short stay, and then, having earned enough money, move back to North Korea (or alternatively are extradited there by the Chinese authorities), the number of North Koreans who have been in China during the last decade might be estimated at 500,000. All of these people are aware that China is very rich by North Korean standards, and most of them have also heard that Chinese consider themselves poor when compared to South Koreans.

Finally, the spread of illegal mobile phones has played a major role in changing the North Korean mindset. Chinese mobile networks have built a number of relay stations along the border, so in adjacent regions one can easily use a smuggled Chinese mobile phone. The phones are used by smugglers and market operators to communicate between themselves. They also allow people to stay in touch with their relatives and friends who are in China or even in South Korea. Indeed, many North Korean defectors in Seoul call their families every week.

As a result, a majority of North Koreans nowadays suspect that South Koreans have better material lives, although few of them appreciate how huge the income gap between North and South really is. To counter this, North Korean propaganda has changed its tune: instead of telling stories about South Korea's destitution, it now largely emphasizes the country's spiritual pollution. South Koreans might be relatively affluent, Pyongyang media says, but they are spoiled by US imperialist culture and have lost their true identity. Even the South's high rate of mixed marriages are mentioned as a sign of pure Korean blood being polluted by lustful foreigners (North Korean propaganda publications hint that marriages are mostly with US Caucasians and do not mention that over 75% of such marriages in the South involve South Korean males and females from East Asian countries). In other words, North Koreans are not told to feel pride in their prosperity but rather to be proud of their spiritual purity and racial superiority.

Will this approach work? Only the future can tell. Nonetheless, it seems that no amount of nationalistic pride can conceal the admiration and envy aroused by the material success of North Korea's neighbors. If this is indeed the case, it does not bode well for the future of the regime.

Send Feedback
How can we improve?
Thanks for your feedback!