Illegal File-Sharing Chips Away At North Korean Propaganda

In the high-stakes debate over control of the Internet, it is common to hear how the free flow of information is crucial to development of humanity. For North Korea, a country that has almost zero Internet access and is repressed beyond anything experienced in the West, the free flow of information is a distant concept. But according to a new report, the sharing of pirate TV shows and music among the citizens of the country is challenging the DPRK regimes' depiction of the outside world.

When it comes to censorship, few countries in the world are as restrictive or repressive as North Korea.

Citizens of the DPRK are routinely deprived access to any and all information, unless of course it has been created, or authorized, by the regime.

The end result is a largely brainwashed society which is fed an alternative version of reality in order for it to be manipulated and controlled. But according to a new survey, developments in technology are giving citizens of the DPRK new access to information and insights into life beyond their borders.

The report, titled A Quiet Opening surveyed North Korean refugees and those who managed to travel outside the country. What it shows is that increasing numbers are gaining access to pirated media from outside the hermit nation, with potentially life-changing consequences.

While devices such as standard radios and televisions are manufactured so that citizens (at least those who can afford them) can only listen to state-run radio stations, imported devices are able to pick up signals from South Korea, China and beyond, although receiving these broadcasts is a crime.

With Internet unavailable to all but a tiny percentage of the elite, citizens of North Korea are obtaining their information through other means, notably file-sharing devices such as DVDs, MP3 and MP4 players, and USB drives.

Through these means they are being increasingly exposed to pirated TV shows and pop music leaking from neighboring South Korea. What they gain from these files is an alternative take on the world which challenges the propaganda of their leaders.

“I was told when I was young that South Koreans are very poor, but the South Korean dramas proved that just isn’t the case,” explains a 31-year-old who managed to escape North Korea in 2010.

Although there is no Internet, computers are legal in the country and are essential for shifting data to and from USB sticks and other media playback devices. What the report shows is that since computers are still rare, people buy blank devices and use their social networks to acquire pirate South Korean media from people with PC access.

“The MP4 [player] was empty but I received movies and music from friends who had computers and then I watched and listened to them. The battery was charged with electricity and it was portable so young people liked it,” says a 23-year-old former Pyongyang resident.

And it appears that the unlawful sharing of files is widespread, particularly among the youth.

“About 70-80 percent of people that have MP3/4 players are young people,” a 44-year-old male who left DPRK in 2010 reports. “When you do a crackdown of MP3/4 players among high school and university students, you see that 100 percent of them have South Korean music.”

In North Korea possession of unauthorized TV shows or music is a very dangerous affair. Depending on how the offense is viewed, punishments can range from 3 months unpaid labor to 5 years in a prison camp if the media originates from South Korea.

But despite the massive risks, young people in the DPRK are apparently prepared to defy the regime by consuming unauthorized media anyway, something they have in common with the US youth who share files in the face of $150,000 statutory damages.

As we read yesterday, the introduction of tougher and tougher laws to combat the spread of pirate material in Sweden also failed to reach the desired effect when they conflicted with social norms.

Of course, the situation in North Korea goes way beyond anything experienced in the US or Europe, but the battles being fought center around the same thing – the free flow of information. Access to information will eventually set the North Koreans free and if that can be achieved through file-sharing, it will be the activity’s biggest achievement to date, bar none.

The report can be downloaded here (pdf)

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