North Korea – high tech and low tech. Part 2

Ok so in my last post I talked about North Korea, the world’s second most restrictive country for press freedom (after Eritrea) and how, with internet access nonexistent, televisions and radios pretuned only to approved, government run stations and incredibly tough punishments for dissent of any kind (read Aquariums of Pyongyang for the full horror of the North Korean gulag).

It seems, from the outside, impossible that people in North Korea could be informed of what the world is like outside the country. The western media is filled with tales of the absurd propaganda fed to North Koreans. Kim Jong-Il, for instance, hit five holes in one and completed the 18 holes in 34 shots in his first round of golf. North Korea’s football coach, Kim Jong-Hun claimed Kim Jong-Il gave him advice during World Cup games via an invisible mobile phone invented by the Dear Leader himself. He also claims to have invented the hamburger.

The Tumen River, seen from China

But this view is off the mark. Because the official economy in North Korea is government controlled, locals turn to the black market for all kinds of everyday goods. These things get into the country via it’s northern border with China, brought either by intrepid North Koreans or Chinese merchants, who wade across the Tumen River that separates the two countries. Among the things brought over were, at first, illegal VCD players and VCD’s of films and TV shows from Hong Kong, South Korea and the USA. Later, these were replaced by DVDs, players of which are legally available in North Korea. North Koreans watching lavish South Korean drama and films cannot be unaware of the lies fed to them by their masters. Chinese mobile phones are also in circulation in the northern reaches of the country, along the border where the signal leaks into mobile-free North Korea. Illegal, smuggled TV sets and radios apparently also circulate, and with it information from the outside.

And the smuggling goes both ways, more recently a group of dissidents has managed to smuggle out videos and news from inside the country. Rimjin-Gang is a magazine and website that aims to tell the truth about life inside North Korea. It trains ordinary North Koreans to use hidden cameras to report covertly from inside the country. The footage they shoot is then smuggled out, cut and edited in Seoul and posted online. The most prominent piece of footage gathered by these brave citizen journalists is this video in which an emaciated woman tells the reporters she survives by eating grass.

In conclusion, the fact that even North Korea, the most controlled and closed society on earth, can be permeated by popular culture and outside influence is a positive sign for freedom of information around the world. But, on the other hand, North Korean life has been exposed as a sham to millions of it’s people via foreign TV for over a decade now…and the regime still stands.

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One Response to North Korea – high tech and low tech. Part 2

  1. Claire Jones says:

    Isn’t this fascinating. Leading on from that incredible video from the Telegraph put together by citizen journalists; have a look at this from BBC Newsnight journalist Sue Lloyd-Roberts:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/8701959.stm

    This is another side of North Korea where she reports on glimpses of North Korean life in between the propaganda. In the follow up report she explains how her mobile phone was confiscated, their rooms were bugged, and how they were given minders – and if they tried to leave without them they would be reported and reprimanded.

    This is a very honest account of their time there and Lloyd-Roberts talks of the struggles she faced in everyday life, as well as trying to do her job filming. It seems their minders were oblivious of the requirements of a television crew, probably because they had never seen any other kind of news item or documentary about their country, or the rest of the world, so they plainly didn’t understand.

    Ignorance is bliss?

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