The opacity of North Korean society—with outsiders having limited access to the country—has been a major challenge to advocates, observers and policymakers in making tangible progress on curbing North Korea’s WMD development. North Korean citizens are often only seen as the victims of the Kim Jong Un regime—powerless and disconnected from the rest of the world. Because of this perception, decades of international efforts to engage and access the restrictive state have neglected to consider its people as a key partner in effecting change inside North Korea.
However, evidence over the past two decades has shown that the North Korean people have survived poverty and repression by becoming more independent from the regime, claiming greater agency over their own lives. Recognizing the people are an integral part of the solution to security, human rights and humanitarian challenges in North Korea, the international community needs to do more than just stand on the side of North Korean citizens; it needs to empower them so that that they can play a key role in holding the regime accountable.
Indeed, North Korean citizens with regular access to outside information know their lives can be better. They understand that the regime’s nuclear development priority is at the expense of citizens’ economic well-being, and aspire to have the freedom and fundamental rights that South Koreans and citizens of other free countries enjoy. Therefore, enabling greater access to outside information—by increasing high-quality content, shortwave and mediumwave radio frequencies, and developing new information dissemination methods and tech apps to circumvent information surveillance—must be at the core of any North Korea strategy.
Access to Information Support: Background
The catastrophic famine of the late 1990s that claimed 600,000 to 1 million lives drove tens of thousands of North Koreans to China to seek food and other essential needs—many of whom eventually settled in South Korea. The nascent North Korean human rights community that emerged at this time, which consisted of defector and South Korean groups along with international human rights organizations, focused on raising international awareness and rescuing and assisting defectors. Through defector interviews, the community has been able to document an egregious human rights record in North Korea. Numerous hearings and conferences have featured the voices of these defectors to share their stories and testify to the human rights violations they experienced or witnessed. Concurrent with these efforts, South Korean and defector organizations have promoted the free flow of information by broadcasting shortwave radio programs into North Korea.
In addition to the major media outlets, such as the US-government-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), civil society organizations saw the need to broadcast programs made by activists—especially defectors—who understood the target audiences. Seeing the potential value of nourishing the minds of North Koreans with accurate information and relevant knowledge, more civil society organizations, including international human rights groups and overseas Korean organizations, have engaged in promoting the diverse free flow of information.
Beyond radio, North Korean human rights organizations have developed and nurtured networks in the China-DPRK border region to disseminate information via CDs, DVDs, USBs and SD cards. As access to media devices became easier, especially smartphones, tablets and laptops, these actors have increased their production of diverse content for different subsets of audiences in North Korea as well.
All of these efforts have borne fruit. According to a recent defector survey conducted in 2019 by the Unification Media Group (UMG), a Seoul-based civil society media organization focused on content creation tailored to North Koreans and the dissemination of information in North Korea, over 90 percent of the 200 North Korean defector respondents had accessed foreign content, and 12 percent had listened to foreign radio at least once a week while in North Korea. This defector survey, although not a representative sample, provided a glimpse into how a steadily increasing number of North Koreans were accessing international news and information.
There are a considerable number of first-hand testimonials—from defectors, diplomats, aid workers and human rights activists—that also document North Koreans’ growing access to and reliance on outside information. In particular, UMG’s unpublished collection of feedback from an additional 150+ people who accessed foreign content inside the country between 2020-2023 illustrates how much North Koreans rely on outside information for their livelihoods. In some cases, these information consumers are more than aware of both their situation and the outside world and are beginning to imagine what their lives could be in different circumstances. Furthermore, many of them want to learn more about the outside world in order to make better sense of their reality and understand what can be done to improve their lives.
How Outside Information is Changing the North Korean People: Anecdotal Evidence
While conducting my own research in 2008, I met a young North Korean from Pyongyang in a Chinese border town. He was nervous and hesitant throughout the conversation, and I was on the verge of giving up when I mentioned in passing that I used to live near the Chelsea football stadium in London; I noticed this caught his attention. I asked him if he liked football, and he said Manchester United was his favorite team and started listing the names of his favorite players. While the names meant nothing to me, I asked his opinion on different football teams to build some rapport. When he seemed finally at ease and relaxed, I asked him how he learned about the teams. He said he and his friends would secretly listen to BBC radio in the middle of the night. Immediately after, he looked embarrassed and uncomfortable about his “oversharing,” and the conversation ended shortly after.
Fifteen years later, I met with a group of recently arrived young North Korean defectors in Seoul. They openly shared how they accessed foreign content and listened to foreign radio stations. One said he learned English while in North Korea by secretly recording English-language radio programs, transcribing them at night and studying the words and content. He would then share what he learned with his very tight-knit circle of childhood friends—many of whom feared his curiosity would get them into trouble but did not stop him from describing to them what he learned from the radio programs. The other defectors shared similar stories of being “addicted” to, or “hungry,” for news about the outside world despite some being caught and punished. It was a fascinating conversation compared to the one with the young man and other North Koreans I interviewed in the border area over a decade ago.
Since these defectors are living in South Korea, they can freely express their thoughts and opinions, but their knowledge and understanding of the conditions in North Korea and the outside world, as well as their critical thinking ability, could not have been gained only in the one or two years they have been in Seoul. More importantly, they said they had “dreamed of” and “hoped” for a world where they could freely think and express themselves and “try and experience everything.” I asked them what led them to dream of such a world, and they all answered: “Outside information.” They had listened to foreign radio stations and accessed a variety of movies, dramas and educational content from outside years before they decided to leave. While they did not fully understand the meaning of many of the issues, topics and terms they heard and learned through foreign media until they arrived in Seoul, their consumption of outside information was a major factor in instilling in them a desire for freedom and an awareness that there is an international community that cares about North Korea.
Access to Information: One Key to the North Korea Dilemma
It has been almost 10 years since the publication of the UN Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) report that detailed evidence of widespread, systematic and systemic human rights violations, and the subsequent adoption of the UN resolution on North Korean human rights. This was a remarkable achievement by the human rights community in telling the North Korean people’s side of the story. Although little seems to have changed, at least on the surface, for North Koreans in the last decade, we know that their perceptions and attitudes have been evolving as they gained knowledge and know-how through access to outside information, and that they are capable of imagining a free society for themselves and beyond. As such, increasing their access to information can empower them to imagine alternative futures for themselves and their country.
However, the success of access to information depends on identifying more channels for the free flow of information into North Korea and requires innovative solutions, especially as new technologies become available. Developing new dissemination methods is costly and, at times, requires political support from the regions and countries where these information channels are tested and operated. With the increased availability of digital devices and equipment inside the country, the North Korean human rights community can work with technologists who have expertise regarding closed societies to leverage existing tools or develop new ones tailored for in-country audiences to safely obtain and access information. This effort is already well underway, and more funding support could potentially change the access to information landscape in North Korea.
Content quality also matters, as North Korean audiences are becoming savvier and more sophisticated about information consumption. It is important to research and understand how best to develop content that is suitable and useful for diverse North Korean audiences. While previous efforts have focused on the delivery and quantity of content, there is a strong need for more tailored content for audiences who may have gained foundational knowledge through years of accessing outside information and want more diverse and analytical programs and educational materials. The North Korean human rights community has begun to address this by partnering with recent defectors and experts of content development in other closed societies to explore such possibilities. With additional international support, the community can create more high-quality content that can better connect North Koreans to the outside world and inspire them to achieve an open and free society for themselves.
As North Korea’s citizens become empowered with information and knowledge, they are more likely to demand the fundamental rights and dignity due to them, just as the world witnessed in Poland, the Soviet Union, and more recently, China’s A4 movement, which was a source of inspiration for some North Koreans who learned about it through foreign radio and USBs distributed by outside supporters. Consistent flows of quality news and information into North Korea can make a difference in effecting change. However, the international community must provide information responsibly and continue to develop safe and secure ways to deliver and disseminate outside content. Accessing outside information in North Korea has been dangerous and sometimes life-and-death risky, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, in December 2021, the Kim Jung Un regime passed a new “anti-reactionary thought law,” which stipulates that “the state shall enforce strict legal sanctions up to and including death penalty against any citizen bringing in, viewing, and distributing reactionary ideology and culture, depending on the severity, regardless of the reason and the offender’s social class.”
Despite the severe punishments and the regime’s effort to control access to outside information, North Korean citizens are willing to take these risks, are hungry for more information and want to be connected to the outside world. The demand for increased and diverse content is only growing. North Korean citizens whose mindsets have been changed by outside information may play an essential role in building a democratic future for themselves and others. The international community must prioritize access to information and ensure these increasingly informed citizens play a critical role in formulating North Korea policy.
From UMG’s unpublished collection of feedback from 150 consumers of outside information in North Korea from 2020-2023.
See Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); and Suk Lee, “Analysis on 2008 Census of North Korea and Problems,” Korea Development Institute, 2011, https://www.kdi.re.kr/kdi_eng/publications/publication_view.jsp?pub_no=12403.