Although North Korea remains one of the most closed countries in the world, more outside information is trickling in through foreign movies, television and radio than ever before, says a study commissioned by the State Department that surveyed hundreds of recent defectors.
But the growing access to outside information doesn’t seem to change North Koreans’ ideas about their own country -- a finding that splits from earlier research on the isolated nation.
Nearly half of the North Korean defectors who were surveyed said they had watched a foreign DVD, an illegal act that can be severely punished. Most of the movies were South Korean television dramas and films, which they often found appealing because they weren’t saddled with obvious messages.
"North Korea only shows beautiful images," a 26-year-old woman who left North Korea two years ago told the researchers. "But in the South Korean dramas, there is fighting and I think that is realistic. There is also poverty, but in North Korea they only show you good things."
The dramas also undercut North Korean propaganda. "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," a 31-year-old man said.
Figuring out what is happening inside North Korea is a daunting task. The regime controls its media. Internet access is scant. Foreign journalists who are granted rare permission to visit the country are accompanied by government minders.
Because of those restrictions, research on North Korea relies heavily on interviewing people who’ve left the country. The researchers cautioned that the refugees and defectors may not be statistically representative of the entire North Korean population in their beliefs and behaviors.
Besides watching foreign DVDs, roughly a quarter of the defectors surveyed said they had seen foreign television or heard foreign radio while in North Korea. Some of the elite have also been able to bring in computers, USB drives and illegal Chinese cellphones, the study found.
However, word-of-mouth, not technology, was widely seen as the most important source of information. Almost all of the North Korean defectors who were surveyed said they had gotten information through "rumors" that wasn’t available in the North Korean state media.
The findings from the Intermedia consulting group echo an earlier study done by researchers Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, which found that outside media were increasingly reaching the country.
But whereas the earlier study tied media consumption to questioning the regime, the new research found that outside media didn’t necessarily affect North Koreans’ beliefs about their country, though the outside media did make them more sympathetic toward South Korea and the United States.
"It’s something that we don’t quite understand," said Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council. "The hold that the regime has on people goes way beyond propaganda."
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles