North Korea has increased efforts in recent years to prevent outside information from entering the country.
But international activists say technology and outside forces will one day lead to the end of state censorship.
North Korea is one of the most disconnected nations in the world. The country has a ban on foreign media. Most people do not have access to the Internet. The Transitional Justice Working Group reports that the government has even executed citizens for sharing media from South Korea. The group researches human rights abuses in North Korea.
North Korea is following a similar method to other authoritarian governments, observers in Cuba and Myanmar say. Cuban and Burmese leaders of organizations that have fought censorship in their own countries recently met in Seoul to share their experiences with Koreans doing similar work.
In Cuba, as in North Korea, there is a growing demand for foreign movies and television programs. This has made the business of illegally bringing in outside information increasingly profitable.
Rafael Duval is with Cubanet, an independent news organization that fights government restrictions in Cuba.
Cubanet uses devices such as USB drives and DVDs to spread a weekly collection of foreign videos and other materials. The collection is called "El Paquete" – "the package" in English. Cubanet delivers the materials through the black market – a system through which things are bought and sold illegally.
Duval says it is the job of some Cuban officials to prevent foreign media from entering the country. But many of them accept illegal payments in exchange for not reporting the sharing of media. And many officials often use foreign media themselves, he adds.
Another project helps Cubans who have email accounts find out information from the Internet. About 25 percent of Cubans have access to email.
The project, called Apretaste, connects Cubans with volunteers in places like the U.S. state of Florida. Cubans can email questions to the volunteers. The volunteers then send them the Internet search results. The organization responds to more than 100,000 requests for information each month.
Myanmar is another country where the free exchange of information has increased. Before the country’s democratic reforms in 2011, the military government closely controlled the Internet.
But its loose border with Thailand, along with a rise in satellite television receivers in the country, brought change. This change made it easy for exiled opposition groups to get around the government’s restrictions on media.
North Korea’s growing black market
The North Korean economy has grown in recent years, even with international sanctions placed on the country because of its continued missile tests.
In the past year, the country’s gross domestic product rose 3.9 percent. The Bank of Korea in Seoul says the increase was driven in part by the exports of coal and other minerals.
But there is also a private market in the country that is driving economic growth. The communist government lets it operate, but does not officially approve of it.
A recent study says that most North Koreans now earn about 75 percent of their money from the black market. The study was done by the Beyond Parallel project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
The illegal export of North Korean fish, shoes, cigarettes and cooking oil has given has given people new buying power. This power makes it possible for them to bring in outside information and technology.
Nat Kretchun is deputy director of the Open Technology Fund. The project is supported by Radio Free Asia, or RFA. RFA and VOA are each part of the U.S. government-supported Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Kretchun says technology like televisions and DVD players are now “ubiquitous” -- or seemingly everywhere -- in North Korea.
The number of legal North Korean mobile phone users has also grown in recent years. Many North Korean cell phones were able to spread unapproved media and information. But recent changes to the phones’ operating systems added censorship and surveillance technology.
Kretchun says the technology blocks unapproved media files from being used on North Korean phones.
However, activists are developing technology of their own in response to government actions.
Kim Seung-chul is a North Korean who fled to South Korea. He created North Korea Reform Radio, which sends anti-government messages to the North.
Kim feels the South Korean government should offer more support to groups working to get into North Korea’s closed information environment.
“The South Korean government, conservatives, veterans and famous people have a lot of money, but they do not use the money for this. They get angry about North Korea’s situation, but they do not act,” Kim said.
I’m Pete Musto. And I'm Ashley Thompson.
Brian Padden and Youmi Kim reported this story for VOA News. Pete Musto adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
We want to hear from you. How long do you think it will be before North Korea becomes more open? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
censorship – n. the system or practice of examining books, movies, or letters in order to remove things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society
authoritarian – adj. not allowing personal freedom
black market – n. a system through which things are bought and sold illegally
account(s) – n. an arrangement in which a person uses the Internet or e-mail services of a particular company
sanction(s) – n. an action that is taken or an order that is given to force a country to obey international laws by limiting or stopping trade with that country, by not allowing economic aid for that country
gross domestic product – n. the total value of the goods and services produced by the people of a nation during a year not including the value of income earned in foreign countries
communist – adj. used to describes a person or people who believe in a way of organizing a society in which the government owns the things that are used to make and transport products and there is no privately owned property
ubiquitous – adj. seeming to be seen everywhere
surveillance – n. the act of carefully watching someone or something especially in order to prevent or detect a crime
veteran(s) – n. someone who fought in a war as a soldier or sailor