Information & Its Consequences in North Korea

By CSIS’s Beyond Parallel Staff —

Key Findings:

  • 91.6 percent of North Korean respondents consume foreign media at least once each month.
  • 83 percent of respondents said they found outside goods and information to be of greater impact on their lives than decisions by the North Korean government.
  • Information from outside is prohibited in North Korea, and accessing it can carry grave consequences including imprisonment.
  • These results, the first of their kind, suggest a growing gap between North Korean society and the government.

How often do you watch or listen to foreign media?

The State of (mis)Information

Citizens of free and open democracies are constantly surrounded by foreign media and outside ideas in their everyday lives. For people living in North Korea, the only legally available media and information is provided, approved, and curated by the regime. The control of information in North Korean society is total, Orwellian, and saturated with state propaganda and the ideology of the regime.

Information control is one of a significant list of the terrible human rights abuses by the North Korean regime, as it seeks to control the mind, expression, and thoughts of the citizens as a tool of repression. History, current news, and the state of world affairs are all filtered through state controls to align with the ideology of the regime. In North Korea, just as sharing opinions that are critical of the government is considered a crime, so too is the act of distributing or consuming outside information and foreign media. The “Crime of Possessing or Bringing in Corrupt and Decadent Culture” can result in 3 to 15 years of detention in labor camps. North Korean escapee testimony have documented cases where death sentences were carried out for individuals possessing especially sensitive content such as South Korean dramas or the Christian Bible. 1

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights2 examined the information environment in North Korea and reported in 2014:

The authorities engage in gross human rights violations so as to crack down on ‘subversive’ influences from abroad. These influences are symbolized by films and soap operas from the Republic of Korea and other countries, short-wave radio broadcasts and foreign mobile telephones.

What Types of Foreign Information do North Koreans Seek?

The risks may be great but North Koreans increasingly access diverse forms of foreign media. North Koreans carefully rig radios to gain access to foreign radio and television broadcasts, DVDs and MP3 players are smuggled covertly across borders, and illegal foreign USB drives are traded in informal marketplaces. Through such means North Koreans access outside information ranging from weather and news reports to South Korean dramas and Chinese movies.

A study commissioned by Beyond Parallel of North Koreans currently living inside the country reveals that 34 of the 36 respondents from all across the country have been exposed to foreign media. 33 of the 36 respondents, or 91.6 percent, watched or listened to foreign media as least once per month and 21 of those 36 used foreign media at least once per week. Previous surveys show a trend of between 90% in 2012 to 88.4% in 2015 of North Korean escapees reporting at least some exposure to South Korean media. 3 The Beyond Parallel findings are the first to confirm from within North Korea that exposure to outside information is not limited to escapees from North Korea and appears to be quite uniform across age, regional, and occupational demographics.

While living in North Korea, have you been exposed to South Korean films, dramas, radio, music, etc?

[1] The SNU survey covered a pool of North Korean’s who had arrived in South Korea during the previous year. Source: North Korean Public Perception on Unification 2014(북한주민 통일의식 2014 ), Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, Seoul National University, 2014, page 189.

Once exposed to outside information, many North Korean’s continue to pursue this new source of knowledge on a regular basis. One North Korean escapee describe her experience with foreign media. “At first I watched outside media purely out of curiosity. However, as time went by, I began to believe in the contents. It was an addictive experience. Once you start watching, you simply cannot stop.” 4

Foreign Media Consumption is not Limited to Sino-North Korea Border

One might expect that living in border regions would make foreign media exposure more prevalent. Interestingly, all of the 18 respondents living in provinces bordering China accessed foreign media only slightly more frequently than those living in other provinces. Twelve of them accessed foreign media at least once per week. In contrast, two of the 18 respondents living in provinces not bordering China said they had never accessed foreign media but of those who did, 9 accessed it at least once per week. Larger inferences regarding the access rates in provinces of course cannot be drawn from such a micro-survey, however, that quite a number of respondents across provinces were able to regularly access foreign media hints that geography doesn’t prohibit the flow of information from the outside world.

To Know or Not to Know

Studies done with North Korean escapees living abroad indicate that North Koreans do have a fairly keen sense for when they are being fed propaganda. And so they know when to seek alternative sources of knowledge. The Beyond Parallel study also found that 32 of the 36 respondents, or 88.9 percent, felt that information from the outside world was useful.

30 of the 36 respondents said they found outside goods and information to be of greater impact on their lives than decisions by the North Korean government.

Despite the grave consequences of accessing foreign media in North Korea, respondents have accessed the information because of its usefulness and the impact of outside information on their lives. One escapee interviewed by Intermedia explains, “People are interested in international politics including U.S.-North Korean relations and inter-Korean relationships, since they influence contraband trading. … During tense periods there are certain categories that we avoid purchasing.”5 Others keep returning to foreign media for the cultural and entertainment value, taking risks and precautions to watch South Korean dramas or purchase pirated Chinese movies.


Given the gravity of the consequences faced for expressing opinions and accessing foreign media in North Korea, the methodology of the interview project commissioned by Beyond Parallel was designed to account for the current conditions in the country and protect all involved. In 2016, CSIS partnered with an organization that has a successful track record of conducting discrete and careful surveys in North Korea.

Beyond Parallel commissioned this organization to administer the questionnaire in eight provinces in North Korea. We talked with 36 men and women in walks of life ranging from laborers, doctors, homemakers, barbers, business presidents, to factory workers spanning in age from 28 to 80. The sampling method we used was non-probability, convenience sampling as accessibility was a prime consideration. There were no reported refusals to answer any of the questions posed by the administrators.

We began by asking North Koreans about the regime’s public distribution system, informal market and bartering activities, outside information, and unification. We inquired about events that drive their view of the government and foreign aid. The third in our five-part series focused on respondents’ answers to the following question: Do you ever watch or listen to foreign media, including radio, TV, dramas, movies, USBs, notel, etc? If yes, how often? 라디오, 텔레비존, 드라마, 영화, USB 등을 통해 외부 정보에 접해본 적 있습니까? 접해본 적이 있다면 얼마나 자주 접했습니까? We asked respondents, “Do you feel that information about the outside world is useful to you, or not? 정보가 본인에게 유익하다고 생각합니까?”

The questionnaire was carried out as natural in-person conversations between those conducting the interviews and the respondents. The individuals administering the questions are carefully trained to avoid asking leading questions or eliciting specific answers so as to protect both the integrity of the interview project and as well as safety of the people involved in the conversation.

The respondents were not cold-called by the administrators, but knew them in some fashion. This method is necessary in North Korea, where citizens’ concern is high that potential misunderstandings or misspoken sentiments with strangers could cause them to be reported to the authorities. Therefore, to gather the responses, the questions were discussed in natural and trusting settings with people who were somewhat but not necessarily deeply familiar with each other.

To learn more visit CSIS’s Beyond Parallel site, here.

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