In recent years, the North Korean government’s war against outside information and culture has intensified. At its core, this war stems from the government’s belief that outside information and culture, which fall under the umbrella of “non-socialist culture,” causes fissures in people’s loyalty toward the regime, particularly the young generation, and poses an existential threat to society’s status quo.
The acute awareness North Korean authorities have about the impact of outside information and culture on their citizens has led them to create an atmosphere of fear by explicitly mentioning the death penalty in recent laws aimed at cracking down on outside influence. Given these circumstances, there is an imperative to find ways to circumvent the regime’s controls on information and communicate directly with the North Korean people to improve their access to outside information.
Crackdowns on Non-Socialist Activity: A Long History
North Korea’s efforts to crack down on outside information and culture are nothing new. Upon the founding of the regime in the late 1940s, the North Korean government immediately implemented several policies aimed at promoting socialist and communist ideology throughout its society. However, as the country grew more focused on its domestic personality cult and the blurring of socialism and ethno-nationalism, the regime put forth the banner of “independence in ideology” and intensified its rejection of cultural trends that fell outside of traditional Marxism-Leninism. With the fall of the Communist Bloc in the 1980s, the North Korean regime abandoned the universal socialist ideology altogether and made clear that anything clashing with the Suryong (Supreme Leader) dictatorship of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il was considered to be anti-party and anti-state.
This trend towards increasing isolation and idiosyncrasy came to an inflection point in the 1990s when the country was struck by nationwide famine and the collapse of its public rations system. Outside media and information entered the country alongside imported foods and household goods. As smuggling activities continued to expand into the 2000s, the North Korean regime attempted to crack down on its people through surveillance, raids and propaganda efforts. Attempts to enforce bans on outside media, however, were insufficient as the organizations tasked with enforcement often took bribes to look the other way. Faced with this situation, the regime has turned to even more oppressive methods to end its people’s consumption and distribution of outside information and culture.
New Fronts in the War on Outside Information and Culture
Today, North Koreans have more options for consuming outside information and media than ever before. While they were previously limited to modified radios and television sets, they can now also watch South Korean movies on USBs, DVDs, and SD cards via their TVs, computers, handheld media devices or even smartphones.
As the technology for consuming “illicit” outside media advances, the North Korean authorities are likewise upgrading their instruments of control. Originally, the most prominent tool of control employed to crack down on outside information was Group 109. However, after the Eighth Party Congress in 2021, another organization, the Unified Command on Non-Socialist and Anti-Socialist Behavior, was formed. Unlike previous enforcement organizations, reports from inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) suggest that Unified Command units also include computer specialists. These teams mount surprise raids on people’s homes to inspect their storage devices, logs and records on their computers while also randomly inspecting the phone records of citizens walking down the street.
All of this has led to a technological cat-and-mouse game. North Korea is making efforts to develop technology to prevent its people from accessing outside information via cell phones, but tactics to skirt around these access blockers also continue to emerge. Given the reactive nature of these technological crackdowns, and the incentives to find ways to circumvent government restrictions, the authorities’ ability to maintain control over citizens’ access to information looks set to gradually decrease over time.
COVID-19 Leads to Increased Oppression
Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, North Korean authorities shut down the border with China, which presented a perfect opportunity to crack down on people consuming South Korean visual content.
North Korea’s enactment of the “DPRK Law of Rejecting Reactionary Thought and Culture” in late 2020 was a key development in the regime’s war on outside information and culture. While existing laws on the books were sufficient for cracking down on the spread of outside information, the new law represents the North Korean government’s most overt attempt yet to crack down on external information.
What sets the anti-reactionary thought law apart from existing laws is, first and foremost, its explicit mention of the death penalty. The fact that the regime has moved to the use of execution as punishment for what the West understands to be such minor infractions would imply that North Korea feels the need to maximize the atmosphere of fear in the country.
Daily NK has tracked cases in which executions have taken place inside North Korea for violations of the anti-reactionary thought law. The table below provides a glimpse of the kinds of punishments North Koreans face for violating this exact law.
The DPRK is also leveraging public shame to create an atmosphere of fear. Public shaming campaigns include conducting public struggle sessions and trials against people who have consumed and distributed South Korean visual content and music. The authorities film these public struggle sessions and distribute the videos to “educate” people throughout the country, including in the capital of Pyongyang. One such video obtained by Daily NK shows the photos of North Koreans along with their names, birthdays, addresses and workplaces, as well as an explanation of their alleged crimes.
In a similar vein, DPRK authorities are using speakers installed in people’s homes and workplaces in Pyongyang to spread the personal information of those who have violated the anti-reactionary thought law. These efforts seem designed to strike fear in the hearts of young people in North Korea, who are at the center of the consumption and spread of outside media content.
Improving Access to Outside Information for the North Korean People
Freedom of information is a two-way street. While it is imperative that the outside world makes an effort to continue to provide North Koreans with access to external information, it also needs to continue to gather information about North Korea and monitor and document the country’s human rights situation. The South Korean government’s recent publication of a report containing the testimonies of 508 defectors is one particularly notable example of this kind of critical documentary work.
While it will take time to pressure the regime into improving human rights in North Korea, those outside of the DPRK can continue raising North Korean citizens’ awareness and expectations regarding their own rights. Testimony by North Koreans does suggest that people in the country are already gaining an enhanced sense of the rights they are entitled to.
I hear the phrase “human rights” here and there. In the past, I just thought of it as a phrase, but now I believe that we need to protect human rights across society. I say that if my right to dignity isn’t protected, then I’m suffering from human rights abuse. I’ve even gotten into an argument with implementers of the law [about this].
This and other testimonies by North Koreans impliy that, thanks to continuous criticism of North Korea’s human rights situation, awareness about this issue in the country is changing. Protecting the right to know—both the world’s right to know about the DPRK and North Koreans’ right to know about the world—is essential to monitor, track, and, eventually, end human rights abuses.
As part of these efforts, the responsibility is on the world outside the DPRK to craft a comprehensive strategy to flood the country with external information. North Korean citizens are thirsty for outside information and actively ask questions about their own society. Some experts on information dissemination into the DPRK are even calling for any and all means necessary to be used to aggressively send information into the country and simply overwhelm the government’s ability to block it all.
Nevertheless, it is important to ensure that information dissemination activities consider the safety and security of North Korean consumers of this information. The DPRK government continues to conduct and intensify crackdowns and inspections on people who smuggle in and distribute South Korean dramas by executing or sending those who consume or distribute such content to political prison camps. In attempting to improve the human rights situation through providing access to information and spreading civic education content, it is my opinion that we must not cause further human rights abuses in the short term.
Moreover, I believe this “flood” of information must be tailored to different classes of society. Cadres, for example, will have different preferences for content than everyday citizens. They will also have different background contexts and knowledge by which they understand information about the outside world. Ultimately, the aim of this strategy would be to circumvent the North Korean government and provide a channel to communicate directly with those inside the country.
Bringing information into the black box that is North Korea has never been an easy task. Following social controls that have been unprecedented since the Arduous March and the introduction of Draconian laws, such as the anti-reactionary thought law, that aim to instill fear, this task has only become more difficult. However, the development of new technologies and the rise of a new generation of North Koreans who are familiar with and hungry for foreign content also presents a critical opportunity. Protecting North Koreans’ right to know is one of the few freedoms the international community can help protect right now, both through outside pressure campaigns and the monitoring of human rights abuses. It is my belief that freedom of information and diversity of thought are equally essential to the formation of civil society and, hopefully, in North Korea’s case, can help pave the road to eventual democracy.
The author would like to thank the staff at 38 North for their comments on the original draft, along with Rose Adams and Robert Lauler for their assistance in putting this article together.
In North Korea, non-socialism (commonly used along with the phrase “anti-socialism”) refers to all acts that lead to the destruction of the socialist system. These acts can include access to outside information and the leakage of inside information but can also include religious acts, acts of superstition, the consumption and distribution of illicit drugs and the wearing of unsanctioned clothing.
This organization was established on the basis of an order made by Kim Jong Il on October 9, 2004, in which he called for the: “Elimination of foreign capitalist ideology.” As a result, the organization has begun to crack down on people who consume or distribute foreign movies, music, published works and broadcasts.
For example, Article 193 (Entry, Storage and Distribution of Decadent Culture, also translated as Import, Keeping and Distribution of Decadent Culture) of North Korea’s Criminal Code states that the authorities can designate outside content as “decadent culture” and that violators can face up to 10 years of reform through labor. However, there have been frequent cases where executions have been carried out based on arbitrary interpretations of the law.
The Reconnaissance General Bureau is a North Korean intelligence agency tasked with managing the government’s clandestine operations.
Public struggle sessions refer to public spectacles where “class enemies” are humiliated and persecuted. A clip recently published by Daily NK from a video obtained from inside North Korea shows a public struggle session in progress. See “N. Korea produces video for Pyongyangites underscoring crime does not pay,” Daily NK, March 24, 2023, https://www.dailynk.com/english/north-korea-produces-video-pyongyangites-underscoring-crime-does-not-pay/.
Testimony by defector Kim Yoon Ah and Kim Tae Hoon, et al., “10 Years of Changes After the North Korean “Human Rights Commission of Inquiry,” People for Successful COrean Reunification (PSCORE) (2022): 27, https://pscore.org/human-rights-in-the-dprk-10-years-after-coi-2/.