On January 17, 2017, a group of South Korean lawmakers was briefed on North Korea strategy by someone with a very special sort of expertise – Thae Young-ho. Thae, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to London until he defected last August, argued based on personal experience that international strategy towards North Korea needs to focus on disseminating information from the outside world into the country. “Low-level dissent or criticism of the regime, until recently unthinkable, is becoming more frequent,” he said. Thae’s remarks join a growing consensus among scholars that economic sanctions have been ineffective and that information dissemination might be more effective. Thus, it is critical to examine how exactly outside information could change the course of North Korea’s future.
For a decade now, illicit trade has allowed potentially destabilizing outside information to enter North Korea. Information has been flowing to North Korea in two main ways. First, there are low-tech methods reminiscent of the Cold War, like Voice of America transmissions and similar shortwave radio broadcasts. Then there is the latest technology: SD chips, thumb drives, CDs, e-books, and cell phones.
The information inflow is driven by both supply and demand. The supply is provided by independent and state-run media organizations and defector-led NGOs seeking to aid the people of North Korea. But more importantly, NGOs in South Korea receive constant calls from North Koreans with requests for foreign TV shows and movies. In fact, this demand has spurred the creation of distribution networks so sophisticated that some South Korean dramas are available in North Korea less than 24 hours after airing.
Fighting on the frontlines of information dissemination are people like defector Park Sang-hak, who leads the South Korea-based Fighters for a Free North Korea, an NGO which launches hydrogen gas balloons carrying USBs containing human rights contents across the border. “Launching each balloon costs around $500 USD—so launching just 10 balloons costs around $5000. Despite the expenses, we continue our efforts because we believe that giving access to information about the outside world to the North Koreans is equivalent to giving them real eyes,” said Park in an interview with VOC. Other groups, like No Chain and the Human Rights Foundation, have developed helicopter drones to deliver USBs and SD cards into North Korea.
How effective are attempts to send outside information into North Korea? According to a 2015 Gallup Poll of 250 North Korean defectors in China and 100 in South Korea, 80-90 percent of the respondents answered that they had seen foreign movies and TV shows while still in the North. The respondents commented that after watching foreign media, they began to distrust the communist regime’s propaganda about South Korea—for instance, the idea that people there are living harder lives than in the North. This growing mistrust encouraged them to start seeking alternative sources of knowledge. Thirty-two out of thirty-six respondents to a CSIS study of residents of North Korea affirmed that information from around the world is useful to them.
A look at the origins of the North Korean defectors in South Korea also suggests the importance of outside information. Eighty percent of the 30,000 defectors in South Korea today are from either North Hamgyong Province or Ryanggang Province. It is probably not a coincidence that these two border provinces have most exposure to foreign media, especially radio broadcasts.
The South Korean government is trying to ensure that North Koreans can act on the information they discover. It announced in early March that it will quadruple the money paid to North Korean refugees in order to assuage fears about the risks of fleeing. Ambassador Thae has described these fears as an important factor in dissuading elites from defecting.
The advent of new technologies has broken the Kim regime’s information monopoly, damaging its ability to shape North Koreans’ image of the outside world. In simple terms, outside information affects North Koreans’ mindsets, and only those mindsets can bring true and lasting change. More and more hope is being placed on an internally-driven regime change, in light of the growing recognition that external pressure, in the form of sanctions, has failed to change North Korea. Suzanne Scholte, President of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, supports the same view, stressing that “the people of North Korea are our greatest allies.” She has in mind what North Korean people have done to bring marketization to the economy out of the pure will to survive.
The rise of “grasshopper markets,” where illicit information flows freely by word of mouth, is a powerful example of how people-led change can reshape North Korea’s future. For North Korea to become truly free, the taste for freedom evident in marketization needs to spread to all areas of society. Information dissemination is an important way that we can help this happen. One North Korean defector, Seongmin Lee, eloquently summarized this vision of the future: “North Korea’s true change is not likely to come about from the overthrow or dramatic change of heart and decree of one man in power, but will rather more organically spring up from the roots of society—24 million North Korean people, cognizant of and eager for the liberty they and all humans deserve.”