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Report Describes North Korea’s Efforts to Ban Outside Information

n this Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, photo, a man plays a game on his mobile phone in North Korea. Millions of North Koreans are now using mobile phones, and not just to make phone calls. Not long after the use of mobile phones was opened up in 2009.
n this Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, photo, a man plays a game on his mobile phone in North Korea. Millions of North Koreans are now using mobile phones, and not just to make phone calls. Not long after the use of mobile phones was opened up in 2009.
Report Describes North Korea's Efforts to Ban Outside Information
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Officials in North Korea are trying to develop new ways to stop outside information from spreading inside the country.

A recent report details North Korean government efforts to reduce the influence of foreign media content. The Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea released the report last week.

Reporter Martyn Williams wrote the report called, Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive. He has followed North Korea’s communications technology and media for 20 years.

Williams described three ways that North Korea is dealing with outside information. The first is through its laws.

The law

North Korean law makes using media from outside the country a crime.

Williams said a lot of foreign media material has gotten into the country during the last 15 or so years. But recently, fewer people are facing sentences for crimes linked to foreign media.

“They can’t put everybody in jail because there are just too many people,” Williams said.

His report shows that many people caught watching or spreading foreign media escape punishment by paying officials.

“If you get caught watching South Korean movies, you’re supposed to go to prison." But the willingness of officials to accept money or goods in return for protection from the law has created different levels of justice. Wealthy people can watch banned content from South Korea and then pay security officials for protection from legal action.

The report notes that “As the State economy has weakened, vital services, such as the public distribution system for food, have been cut.” This has affected everyone, “including the security officials.”

Buying legal protection appears to be easier for offenders the further they are from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. This is because economic hardship is more severe in rural areas, the report said.

To find foreign media products, police raid homes.

This measure was more successful in the past. Police would cut electric service and enter homes in search of video tapes or discs. Now, movies and other media can be stored on devices that are extremely small. This makes it harder for police to find banned content.

Police also try to catch people through random inspections on the street.

“…As well as checking someone’s pockets, they’ll also ask for a cell phone, and they’ll ask for the password to the cellphone,” Williams said. The police then search the cellphones for banned media or even the use of South Korean words or phrases.

The report notes that officials have shifted punishment to people who spread banned media even as they catch people who use it.


Content on state-operated media is said to be not very interesting.

Williams noted that North Korea is trying to increase the production value of its own media so more people will use it.

The report said that North Korea’s state-run KCTV started showing programs in high definition earlier this year. But it said people still like foreign media more. It said KCTV’s content is “dry, propaganda-heavy and cannot compete with more interesting content from overseas.”

Some foreign media such as computer games and sports coverage are permitted. Williams said the government believes that people will ignore other foreign media if they are occupied playing games and watching sports.


The report also discusses ways North Korean officials use technology to prevent the spread of outside information. An example is the software “Red Flag” which runs on smartphones and keeps a record of webpages visited.

Another method is file watermarking. In this measure, the file records every device that plays it. One person who spoke to researchers said, “North Korean smartphones and other devices leave a tag on USB [flash drives] so they can trace which computers or mobile devices have viewed them.”

Watermarks on files also make it easier for officials to discover networks that spread foreign media information.

Information campaign needed

David Maxwell is with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies based in Washington. He said the report shows that the North Korean government is most afraid of information. He said the international community should find ways to target people in North Korea with more information.

Thomas Barker is a lawyer who has represented North Korean escapees seeking U.S. citizenship.

“…Getting access to information about the outside world, it plants in the heart of a North Korean the desire to be free…and it gives them the desire to escape North Korea,” Barker said.

The report, Digital Trenches, was based on discussions with 41 North Korean escapees living in Seoul, South Korea and on independent research.

I’m Caty Weaver, and I’m Mario Ritter, Jr.

Eugene Whong reported this story for Radio Free Asia. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

content –n. information found in books, magazines, movies, and other sources

vital –adj. very important or necessary

shift –v. to go or to cause (something) to go from one person or thing to another

distribution –n. giving or delivering something to many people

tag –n. a piece of identifying information used on a computer system

high definition –n. a television system that provides a better picture than earlier systems