North Korea is one of the most closed societies history has ever seen, consistently ranking last (or very close) in Reporters Beyond Borders’ Press Freedom Index since it began in 2002. There’s no independent domestic media whatsoever, and accessing foreign media has incredibly harsh penalties.Without any media that isn’t propaganda, and no real glimpse to the outside world, it’s not hard to see why North Koreans interviewed by Western outlets are often so incredibly patriotic to the country’s pariah regime and its leaders.
However, a fascinating report released last month titled “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing media Environment”, has found that a surprising medium may be changing perspectives inside the country — pirated DVDs.
Yes, in a country with such limited media, North Koreans have reportedly taken to watching pirated DVDs together, often in groups. Almost half of those surveyed in the report admitting they had watched a foreign DVD within North Korea.
There’s a few reasons that illegal DVDs seem to be doing well. First off, DVD players themselves are not illegal (they can be used for official state DVDs), and the pirated DVDs are relatively cheap (50 cents, which is obviously a fair amount more there, but affordable for the middle class). They are also easy to hide and share.
These points (and we presume North Korean citizens’ own curiosity and boredom) lead many to risk up to five years in a labour camp just to watch a South Korean film or soap opera. And while these may just be silly works of entertainment to the rest of the world, to those watching they can reveal something else.
From the report:
….South Korean and other foreign films and drama have much higher production values than North Korean media and provide viewers in the North with exposure to a powerful and easily comprehensible reality beyond that of North Korea. When looked at in terms of broad reach, in a relatively short period of time, DVDs have grown to become the most common and perhaps impactful form of outside media in North Korea. As information about South Korea has spread, the North Korean government backed away from its stance that South Korea was worse of economically than North Korea, as it was unable to sustain that claim in the presence of clear evidence of South Korean economic prosperity.
This quote from a 31-year-old who escaped the country two years ago nails the point:
“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,”
Other illicit factors that are helping spread knowledge of the outside world within the country include foreign TV and radio. USB sticks and MP3 players are also becoming relatively widespread amongst young people, the report found.
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