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North Korea cracks down on knowledge smugglers

By TIM SULLIVAN Published: January 1, 2013
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“Let me worry about how to do it,” laughed one smuggler, asked how he gets his goods into North Korea. He is a friendly man, dressed business-casual in black corduroys and a black sweater.

Asked what he could get across the border, he made clear that business was thriving. Televisions, including ones able to pick up foreign stations? No problem. DVD players? Sure. Chinese movies? Yes.

But when asked about South Korean DVDs, the man shifted uncomfortably in his chair. His partner spoke up. No South Korean items — not DVDs, thumb drives, cosmetics or food.

“Nothing,” the partner said firmly.

Soap operas, at first, might not seem like conduits of underground information. But they are threats nonetheless, offering windows into worlds that North Koreans both lack and desire.

North Korean viewers living in tiny two-room homes and struggling to feed their families can see houses with bedrooms just for children, and dinners with endless food. They see everyday people casually complaining about policemen and politicians. Scenes like that are provocative in a country where defectors say criticizing the ruling family can send entire families to sprawling prison camps, and where bicycles are considered luxury items for many.

Plenty of other smugglers are willing to carry what the man in Hunchun is not.

Millions of foreign TV and movie recordings are thought to be floating around North Korea, though they are most easily available in cities near the Chinese border. With the crackdown, analysts say smugglers appear to have shifted to new techniques, at least for videos: carrying recordings on tiny thumb drives, and then transferring the programs to DVDs inside North Korea.

Because once information starts to flow, information cannot be turned off like a spigot. At most it can be slowed.

In many ways, Kim is facing an authoritarian contradiction.

North Korea has been trying — albeit haltingly and slowly — to revitalize its barely functioning economy and crack open a door to the outside. Foreign tourists are now commonplace in Pyongyang, though on tightly controlled trips, and Kim has told his people that they should never go hungry again. Western movies occasionally are shown on state television. North Korean officials now actively court foreign investors.

As a result, North Korea has found itself flirting with modernity — more than a million of the 24 million North Koreans now have mobile phones, for instance, though they can only place and receive calls domestically — while trying desperately to keep a tight grip on the public.

“They want to modernize but the cost of this effort is information, which could easily destabilize the regime,” said Victor Cha, former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration, and now a professor at Georgetown University. “Without control of information, there is no regime.”

Exactly when the latest crackdown began isn't clear. Many analysts date it to early 2011, as Pyongyang watched the wave of protests sweeping the Arab world. But it also appears to have intensified since the December 2011 death of North Korea's longtime leader, Kim Jong Il, and the rise of his son, Kim Jong Un. The younger Kim, almost completely unknown until late 2010, is believed to be about 29 years old.

In the clearest sign of the crackdown, the number of North Korean refugees reaching South Korea in 2012 has dropped by almost half, to about 1,400, compared to last year. While that statistic doesn't include every North Korean who fled across the border, many of whom spend years living underground in China, it is widely seen as a general indication of the increased frontier security.

But the North Korean market for outside knowledge, nearly all observers say, has become insatiable. It's been more than a decade since everyday North Koreans caught their first real glimpses of the outside world, when a breakdown in government control during the 1990s famine combined with the arrival of cheap Chinese electronics. The hunger for the larger world resembles, in many ways, the appetites in China in the years after Mao Zedong's 1976 death, when Beijing began opening the door for the world's mass media.

Today in North Korea, the idea of winning a fight against information seems an impossible goal.

If nothing else, said a onetime smuggler who eventually fled to South Korea, too many powerful North Koreans are making money in the business. He clearly remembers his early televised revelations, when DVDs showed him so much that his own country didn't have.

“I felt sad about the state of my country when I watched the DVDs,” said the defector, who now lives in Seoul and spoke on condition he not be named, fearing retribution against family still living in North Korea. “I could see Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the United States … these other places were so much better off.”


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