Between Wishful Thinking and Realism: Hopes for a Pyongyang Spring

On September 20, 2016, the US Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) issued a call worth an estimated 1.6 million USD for projects to “foster the free flow of information into, out of, and within the DPRK.” In particular, applicants are encouraged to submit proposals for producing and transmitting radio broadcasts into North Korea; producing content and/or acquiring existing content of interest to North Korean audiences; exploring new mechanisms or expanding existing mechanisms for sharing or consuming information and content; raising awareness of legal rights under existing DPRK domestic laws and its international human rights obligations; raising awareness of international best-practices and norms; promoting fundamental freedoms, including expression, movement, association, and peaceful assembly.

In other words, the US government has decided to instigate a “Pyongyang Spring” through a targeted and concerted media and information campaign—and we are not talking about those ridiculous loudspeakers at the DMZ.

This is not the first such measure, but considering that North Korea’s nuclear program has been a problem since at least 1993, I wonder why it has taken so long to do the obvious. Moreover, the amount to be invested is rather modest; it might be enough to sustain a small NGO or two but appears mediocre compared with the money spent on THAAD, several annual military maneuvers and other measures.

As a former East German who grew up with daily broadcasts of West German TV and radio stations I can confirm that media campaigns can be a very effective policy. Note the subjunctive, however. Will this kind of strategy work in the case of North Korea? If so, will it work the way the US government hopes?

I am skeptical, for a number of reasons, including the nature of North Korean ideology, existing access to information in North Korea, the actual effect of the media campaign, and the potential reaction of the Pyongyang government.

Flash drives are often used to smuggle information into North Korea. (Photo: Joe Pugliese)


It does not take a North Korea expert to understand that North Korea is under the influence of a strong ideology. The immediate conclusion is that in order to bring down the regime, the ideology needs to be undermined, thus destroying the pillar on which the system rests. Such a view makes perfect sense—Kim Jong Il himself has written something to that effect back in 1995.[1] But we should make sure not to ignore an important detail.

North Korea’s ideology is not like the Marxism-Leninism that ruled the former Eastern bloc before 1990, which was more or less of a technical nature and externally imposed. Rather, it is much closer to the religious fundamentalism that made the Arab Spring such a big disappointment for those who had hoped for a quick and easy solution. Instead, the emerging power vacuum after the demise of the old regime in countries like Egypt or Libya was filled by forces that could hardly be described as a Western democratic type.

North Korea’s ideology is defensive ultra-nationalistic and is reinforced by the historical experiences of the Japanese occupation and American carpet-bombing. North Koreans believe that they have nothing good to expect from foreigners, in particular if their forces are stationed along their borders, and that only military strength can protect them. I am not saying that this makes the ideology and its link to the regime unbreakable, but it does make the task much more challenging than some in Washington seem or want to believe.

Moreover, North Korea’s ideology is remarkably flexible. It adjusts quickly and is surprisingly ambiguous and unspecific. Rather than denying a reality that most North Koreans experience on a daily basis, it adds a spin to it. The famine in the mid-1990s, for example, was explained by bad weather and US sanctions. The Kaesong Industrial Zone was portrayed as an act of help to the suffering South Korean economy. As you can see, just providing information is not the name of the game; it is the much more complicated task of selling alternative interpretations of it.

Access to Information

A good dose of skepticism is in place regarding the idea that North Koreans know close to nothing about the outside world or their own reality, and that if only their eyes were opened, they would brush the Kim family aside and happily join South Korea, cap in hand.

My own interaction with North Koreans during the last 25 years tells me that even without the internet and Fox News, these people are remarkably well informed. Transmitted by word of mouth, the main source of that information is China. China is one of the countries where many North Koreans have relatives; many can even travel there. Chinese businesspeople are also present everywhere in the North. Most of the goods traded in North Korean markets come from China, and this procurement chain involves countless interactions between Koreans and Chinese. A single trip to Shenyang will change a North Korean’s perception more substantially than watching a whole season of the popular South Korean TV drama, “My Love from the Star.”

All that knowledge has been around for years, but the system still seems to be stable and resilient. Those who hope that a simple media campaign will provide a quick fix to the North Korean nuclear program need to consider this.

Anticipated Effects

Taking comfort in the fact that the ridiculously small number of North Koreans, less than 30,000 since 1953, who made it to South Korea or the United States were able to break free from the spell of jucheism would be self-deception. Defectors are a self-selective group: they leave precisely because they do not like the system. Human rights organizations report about discontent within the country, thus creating the impression of an imminent uprising that only needs a little push from the outside to happen. But how representative are such events? Making the idea that North Korean society is at a tipping point a working hypothesis could be dangerously misleading.

An often-ignored risk lies in the chance that a clumsily designed campaign might backfire and achieve the opposite of the desired effects. North Koreans are not dumb. They know what propaganda is. If they realize that the other side is trying to manipulate them, they will turn their back on it in disgust. We know that some North Koreans secretly watch movies and TV series for entertainment. This is their “content of interest.” I can see how subversive messages of the type “life is great on our side” can be smuggled in; I am less optimistic on “raising awareness of legal rights under existing DPRK domestic laws and its international human rights obligations” or “raising awareness of international best-practices and norms.”

In hindsight, I believe the most effective tool of West German propaganda in East Germany was normality. Being able to watch regular TV and to listen to regular radio broadcasts created the impression of being a witness, not a target. Content that is specifically designed for North Koreans will enrich those who produce it but otherwise will achieve little.

However, given the proven inclination of the South Korean government towards micro management, I am quite skeptical whether it will be tried to make regular South Korean media content accessible to North Koreans at all. Rather, some bureaucrats in Seoul will edit out everything that they consider inappropriate—like fist-fights in the National Assembly, documentaries about the homeless, etc.—to create a South Korean version of “only beautiful, please.”

Pyongyang’s Reaction

Even if we assume that such a media campaign would be successful, there is no reason to believe that those in power in North Korea will sit idle. Counter-measures will be of a technical and political nature. The recent introduction of internet-protocol television (IPTV or streaming TV) can mean many things, including a much better way to prevent the consumption of non-authorized broadcasts. Once no antennas are needed to receive North Korean TV, those who nevertheless keep them installed will invite the suspicion of authorities. Radio frequencies can be blocked by a strong carrier signal, which the North Koreans have been doing for decades. In any case, watching Western media, be it over TV or on DVDs and USB sticks, is still illegal and a punishable offense.

North Koreans violate this rule only selectively and carefully; too much is at stake for them. The state has many ways to even increase the cost of noncompliance. One reason why Western propaganda was so successful in Eastern Europe was a remarkable negligence by the governments there. For instance, how many Hungarians were publicly executed in the 1980s for watching Hollywood movies? When I grew up in East Germany, West German TV was frowned upon by the state but otherwise perfectly legal. Do not expect the same lenience from the North Korean state.

As is the case for most large bureaucracies, North Korea’s system of surveillance is less perfect than we tend to believe—and a remarkable amount of activity is taking place below the radar. This is despite the fact that Kim Jong Un has repeatedly warned against the “evil-minded ideological and cultural infiltration” in is speech at the Party Congress earlier this year.”[2] A media campaign of the type cited above could raise the related awareness of the North Korean authorities and compel them to invest more resources into counter-measures. In the end, it could turn out that fewer people, not more, will have regular access to alternative sources of information.

Conclusion and Alternate Paths Forward

The fact that it has taken the US government so long to bolster a soft power campaign targeting the people of North Korea is curious, for it definitely aims at a weak spot of the system. At the same time, what seems to be the most obvious strategy to bring down the regime will not be as easy as some might hope for. Expectations of what can be accomplished through external pressures need to be grounded in a better understanding of conditions on the ground in the North, not just defector testimony, lest we waste taxpayers’ money or drift right into some other chaotic situation. In particular, explicit or implicit analogies with Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union must be scrutinized to better understand the potential and limitations of what can be done.

As I and many others have argued repeatedly,[3] a much more effective and sustainable strategy to change North Korea would be to fund business relations and market activities—drivers of real social and values changes over the past decades. So far, the US is leaving this—and the information and soft power that comes with it—to the Chinese, who happen to also be its biggest strategic rival on the peninsula and in the region.


[1] Kim Jong Il, Giving Priority to Ideological Work is Essential for Accomplishing Socialism, 1995,

[2] See Ruediger Frank, “The 7th Party Congress in North Korea: A Return to a New Normal,” 38 North, May 20, 2016,; and “김정은: 조선로동당 제7차대회에서 한 당중앙위원회 사업총화보고,” [Kim Jong Un: Report on the Work of the Central Committee Held at the 7th Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party], Rodong Sinmun, May 8, 2016,

[3] See Ruediger Frank, “Rason Special Economic Zone: North Korea as it Could Be,” 38 North, December 16, 2014,; Sung Chull Kim and David Kang, Engagement with North Korea (New York: SUNY Press, 2009).

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