North Korea – high tech and low tech

This blog is supposed to be about modern technology breaking down the barriers to a free press. I’m sure someone else will write about Twitter in Iran or China’s Great Firewall, so allow me to go back in time a little bit in technological terms.

North Korea is itself a time warp. A feudal dictatorship modelled on 1950s Stalinism that denies it’s people even the most basic freedoms. The press is no different, it comes 177th out of 178 in Reporters sans Frontiers Press Freedom Index, ahead only of Eritrea.

The problem with writing about North Korea from an outside perspective is we know so little. Most journalists who make it into the country do so on highly controlled tours, accompanied at all times by minders and shown only what they want you to see. Vice Magazine’s three part, covertly filmed documentary is the best example of what a tour of North Korea is like. Most of what we know from comes from interviews with defectors, done best by Barbara Demick in Nothing to Envy and from the few outsiders who work in the country, NGOs, diplomats and so on.

So, what do we know about the media in North Korea? Well, there’s the English language weekly newspaper, The Pyongyang Times (sample headline: “Kim Jong-Il meets woman soldiers, visits cattle farm”). And then there’s the official source of North Korean news to the outside world, the Korean Central News Agency:

General Secretary Kim Jong Il gave field guidance to the November 20 Factory and the Ryongaksan Spring Water Factory.
The first leg of his guidance was the November 20 Factory.

He looked round a room devoted to the education in the revolutionary history, conducted by leading officials of the factory.

Seeing the historical relics and data on display, he looked back with deep emotion on the glorious path of victory and prosperity covered by the factory under the care of President Kim Il Sung.

Stirring stuff. On a local level the BBC lists four newspapers in it’s section on North Korea, all representing facets of the state. Kim Jong-Il’s book Guidance for Journalists sets out the general tone of the North Korean media:

“It is advisable that the newspapers carry articles in which they unfailingly hold the president in high esteem, adore him and praise him as the great revolutionary leader”

The only radio and TV stations are also run by the regime, and radio and TV sets are locked to only pick up those stations. Anyone caught listening to foreign broadcasts will be sent to the gulag. And so will their family.

And despite being run by an “internet expert”, North Korea is not yet online, instead there is an internal intranet.

So without the help of the internet, is it possible, from within North Korea, to find out about the outside world?

We’ll find out in part 2…

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4 Responses to North Korea – high tech and low tech

  1. I wouldn’t think so.

  2. Pingback: Press and Broadcast Freedom in Burma – I | Press and Broadcast Freedom

  3. Adrian Naik says:

    As seen with many old people in this country – the internet is only useful if you have it and if you can use it. North Koreans, as you say, don’t. There is no way for their word to get out; even powerful media organisations such as the BBC can’t get the message of the people out, how can starving individuals with no money or technology?

    That is: if they even have a message to get out. In a documentary on the BBC about North Koreans leaving the country, crossing the border in the black of night through a freezing river, we saw a glimpse into just how indoctrinated the people of NK are. And with the government propaganda their only media outlets, and no view of the outside world, do they know any better?

    Patronising I know, but seeing how little we know about the people of NK, it might be accurate.

    • acpart says:

      Excitingly enough, just this week we’ve had South Korea dropping leaflets into the North with details of what’s going on in Egypt and Tunisia on them along with radios, in the hope that it’ll spark something among the populace.

      North Koreans are much better informed than you’d think. Or, at the very least, they’re aware that their country and the conditions they live in aren’t the envy of the world.

      Definitely definitely recommend Barbara Demmick’s “Nothing to Envy” if you want to learn more, it’s incredible.

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