For N. Korean Regime, No News Is Good News

Times Staff Writer

About two years ago, a North Korean who worked in the state fisheries division was on a boat in the Yellow Sea when his transistor radio picked up a South Korean situation comedy. The radio program featured two young women who were fighting over a parking space in their apartment complex.

A parking space? The North Korean was astonished by the idea that there was a place with so many cars that there would be a shortage of places to park them. Although he was in his late 30s and a director of his division, he had never met anyone who owned their own car.

The North Korean never forgot that radio show and ended up defecting to South Korea last year.


“I realized that if there is a shortage of parking spaces, this is a different world than the one we know,” said the North Korean, who now lives in Seoul and asked that his identity not be revealed.

The North Korean government goes to extraordinary lengths to prevent its citizens from being exposed to the outside world, having apparently concluded that no news is good news for the survival of its regime.

In an age of globalization and instant communications, North Korea is almost a black hole for information from the outside world. Radios have their tuners fixed to a single official station and satellite dishes are banned to keep out foreign television broadcasts.

Although North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is said to surf the Internet and tune into CNN, most of his fellow citizens have access to little more than blatant propaganda.

“The North Korean people are like frogs in a well. They don’t know the outside world at all,” said a Chinese merchant who lives in the Yalu River city of Dandong and travels frequently into North Korea.

North Korea has made halting steps toward ending the information blockade. This year, the regime said it was easing restrictions on foreign merchants. Last week, it announced plans to launch an international e-mail service. The government seems well aware that opening the door some degree is inevitable if North Korea is to attract desperately needed foreign investment.


But many North Korea watchers believe it’s unlikely the regime will lift its restrictions on the flow of information.

“The North Korean leadership isn’t stupid. They know that they cannot liberalize information. If North Koreans started watching South Korean television, the regime would completely collapse,” said Kim Young Ju, a professor of mass communications at Kyungnam University in Seoul.

“It is a matter of life and death,” said Choi Jin I, a North Korean writer who defected in 1998. “If people were exposed to the outside world, North Korea would cease to exist. The whole place would collapse.”

At the time she left, Choi had never heard of the Internet or used a computer, even though she worked at the Authors’ Federation Central Committee in the capital, Pyongyang. Today, there is only an intranet through which a small number of the elite in universities and government ministries can communicate with one another inside the country.

Masood Hyder, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Pyongyang, said the lack of Internet access became an issue this year during the panic over severe acute respiratory syndrome. The North Korean Health Ministry was unable to access information from the World Health Organization.

“It is staggering that in this age of interconnectivity there is a hole in the Web, that there is a part of the world that is not connected,” Hyder said in an interview in Seoul.

Foreigners who work in North Korea say that they are often shocked by its people’s ignorance of current events. A British aid official who lives in Pyongyang says that North Koreans seem as unaware of what’s happening in their own country as they are of events in the outside world -- especially the ongoing confrontation over the nation’s nuclear weapons.

“Even in Pyongyang, where you are dealing with an elite, people don’t know much. I’ll say, ‘I see that your government test-fired a missile yesterday,’ and they’ll respond, ‘Oh, did we?’ ” said the aid official, who asked not to be identified.

North Korea has at least 16 national newspapers as well as various regional publications, according to Kyungnam University’s Kim. He described the content as a “subtle mix of news and opinion with news stories loosely based on fact, but mostly fabricated.”

The best known of the newspapers is Rodong Shinmun, which means Workers’ Newspaper. It has only a smattering of what might be called news. “Let’s Work for the Great Leader” and “Let’s Live With the Mind and Spirit of Revolutionary Soldiers,” read two of the front-page headlines from the edition of Nov. 20.

International news is on the last page and is made up entirely of bad things that happened in capitalist countries -- usually four or five days earlier. The Nov. 20 issue reported on the collapse of a ship’s gangway in France, a train derailment in Japan and a protest in Seoul against the visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The merest sliver of real news can be enough to puncture the fragile illusions held by North Koreans. Many defectors have said that the incessant coverage in the North Korean media of demonstrations next door had the unintended effect of convincing them that the South Koreans were better off for being free to voice their grievances.

Kim Tae Jin, a 53-year-old defector who lives in Seoul, remembers as a young man in North Korea seeing a photograph of what were said to be impoverished and oppressed South Korean workers. What he noticed, however, was that they wore jackets with zippers and that one had a ballpoint pen in his pocket -- luxuries at the time in North Korea.

Regulations for the possession of radios in North Korea are structured much like gun-control laws in other countries, according to a study published in August in Keys, a journal published in Seoul about North Korea.

A buyer must immediately report the purchase to police and submit the radio to have its stations fixed to government channels. If an unlicensed radio is discovered, it is confiscated and its owner punished as a political criminal.

Not surprisingly, opponents of the North Korean regime often have tried to promote the free flow of information as a means to subvert the system.

In August, a German activist tried to use balloons to drop radios over the demilitarized zone. He was foiled by South Korean police.

The U.S. government-sponsored Radio Free Asia has been broadcasting Korean-language programs into the North since 1997, while South Korea has been piping in songs, news and talk shows for half a century.

Because any North Korean caught listening to such a program can be sent to prison camp, it is impossible to know how many people hear them. Two years ago, a study of 60 North Korean defectors, which was conducted in Seoul by the Korean Broadcasting Institute, found that 70% had listened at least a few times to South Korean broadcasts.

The North Korean regime appears to be fighting a constant battle against the encroachment of information from the outside.

Although the DMZ that severs the Korean peninsula is in effect impregnable, the border with China is not. North Koreans cross into China in search of work and food and return with tales of the relative abundance on the other side. Some people living in border cities, such as Sinuiju, are able to adjust their television sets to pick up Chinese broadcasts.

Increasingly, businesspeople are smuggling in Chinese cellphones. Although the phones can be used only in border areas and in extreme secrecy, they are giving a few North Koreans something they had never had: uncensored, unrestricted communication with the outside world.

Defectors say North Koreans are increasingly aware that they are poorer than their neighbors, although they tend to blame the United States rather than their own government.

Eventually, they do find out about major world events -- albeit through the eyes of the propagandists.

“What we heard about Eastern Europe [after the collapse of the Soviet Union] was about people fighting and getting drunk and digging through garbage for food. The message was this is what happens when socialism collapses,” said Kim Sun Ae, a 37-year-old nursing student in Seoul who fled North Korea in 1998.

Kim said that in her village in North Hamgyong province, people sought out newspapers mainly because they so desperately needed any kind of paper.

“The newspaper was free, but only the elite in my village got it regularly and it was very precious,” said Kim, who changed her name when she moved to Seoul.

“When we’d get one, we would cut out the margins so that the children could practice writing. My husband used it to roll tobacco.”