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Foreign Media in North Korea - How Kpop is Challenging the Regime

April 22, 2022

Movies, TV shows, and music hold power. They’re a way for us to connect through common experiences, reckon with different sides of humanity, and revel in the beauty of being here at all. They transport us to another time and place- perhaps one of our imaginations- and most importantly, allow us to dream and imagine a limitless future.

Popular South Korean drama Crash Landing on You. Photo credit: Netflix and IMDb.


In recent years, South Korean media and entertainment has gained international recognition. People like Hyun Bin and Son Yejin, the stars of popular Korean drama Crash Landing on You, have become household names, while Parasite swept the 2020 Academy Awards and music from K-pop groups like BTS are charting globally.

Meanwhile, just across the border, North Korea remains one of the most closed societies in the world. Yet even in the “hermit kingdom,” foreign media is accelerating empowerment of the people and change within the country!

Forced Isolation and the Regime’s Information Monopoly

The North Korean government has maintained power for decades through a system of imposed isolation, relentless indoctrination, and brutal repression. A complete monopoly on information and ideas within the country has been key- outside media threatens to challenge the legitimacy of their propaganda, and by extension, their control.

The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea reported an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as well as of the rights to freedom of speech, opinion, expression, and association.

North Korea is technologically isolated from the world


The regime employs a range of strategies to enforce information control:

  • Restricting movement across borders and within the country
  • Random house searches
  • Severe punishment, including public executions, to deter foreign media consumption and sharing
  • Sophisticated digital surveillance
  • Jamming phone signals and locating users through signal triangulation
  • Mobile OS file signature system that only permits government-approved apps and files


The Spread of Foreign Media

Despite this isolation and unparalleled internal restrictions, the North Korean people have been quietly changing their country from within, including through foreign media access. Through market activity and the movement of people and goods across the Chinese border, they have forced the gradual opening up of their society. Movies and music are smuggled into the country on USBs, SD and MicroSD cards, and small portable media players, offering illicit access to information from the outside world.

With lights off and windows shuttered, North Koreans will watch foreign media despite the risks. If all else fails, bribes are a way for people to reduce punishment if caught. Most North Korean police and government officials rely on bribes to survive, and some defectors complain that they are actually the biggest consumers of foreign media because they confiscate so much.

A representation of how North Koreans watch illegal foreign media

Information Technology in North Korea

Within North Korea, a broad range of information technologies are available, although they should be registered with authorities. Laptops and computers officially run on a government operating system, Red Star OS, while the North Korean intranet, Kwangmyong, is air-gapped from the internet and heavily surveilled. However, in practice, many North Koreans have non-networked devices used for games, editing software, watching videos, and to copy, delete and transfer media on removable devices.

Mobile phones are also common with approximately 6 million on the North Korean network, meaning roughly 1 in 4 people have one. These North Korean phones generally cannot make international calls and the operating system limits users to approved state media (programs have been developed to bypass this security). On the other hand, smuggled Chinese phones can be used in border regions on the Chinese network. These have been crucial for staying in touch with relatives who have escaped or defected, who often send back money and information from the outside world.

North Korean woman with phone. Photo credit: Eric Lafforgue.

Radios are the only channel of foreign media and news available real-time across the country. While they should officially be registered and fixed to North Korean stations, it is relatively easy to tamper with radio sets to pick up foreign broadcasts. In border regions, some TVs can also pick up live programming from South Korea and China. Traditionally, TVs were connected to DVD players, but newer LCD televisions also have direct USB input ports.

How Foreign Media Changes Perceptions

Among foreign media, entertainment from South Korea is particularly attractive, produced in the same base language by people with the same ancestry. They contain glimpses of rich and free realities just across the border. In comparison, domestic North Korean media seems old-fashioned and disingenuous, designed to reinforce the regime’s ideologies.

As North Koreans learn more about life, freedom and prosperity in the outside world, and their own relative poverty, the regime’s ideology and control are eroded.

North Koreans watching a Korean drama on a laptop
“At first you see the cars, apartment buildings, and markets and you think it must be a movie set. But the more you watch, there’s no way it can be just a set. If you watch one or two [movies] it always raises these doubts, and if you keep watching you know for sure. You realize how well South Koreans and other foreigners live.”

– Danbi, escaped North Korea in 2011


Empowered by foreign media, North Koreans are exploring their creativity and potential through everyday acts of resistance- using South Korean slang, copying fashion styles, and sharing pop culture references. In this culture war, Kim Jong-un has called for crackdowns on "unsavory, individualistic, anti-socialist behavior" among young people to restrict freedom of expression.

Foreign media also facilitates shared acts of resistance. People will swap USB devices with trusted friends and neighbors, increasing confidence in one another through a symmetrical transaction. Some people may also watch and discuss movies and shows together, increasing the media’s subversive influence and creating social networks.



The Regime’s Response

During the pandemic, we’ve seen unprecedented levels of isolation and restrictions, closing off the country more than ever before. To buttress control, Kim Jong Un has simultaneously increased crackdowns and punishments on foreign media consumption. In December 2020, the “anti-reactionary thought law” made watching foreign media punishable by 15 years in a political prison camp.

While the situation is harrowing, the government’s extreme response underscores the power of foreign media. The regime recognizes that social changes driven by North Korean people are a threat to their authority and control in the long term.


Accelerating Foreign Media Access and Change 

Moving forward, increasing access to outside information is one of the most effective ways to help the North Korean people and bring forward change.

Information and technology support for North Korean people has historically been an under-utilized and under-invested strategy. LiNK Labs is our area of work focused on this opportunity- we’re developing technologies, networks, and content to empower North Korean people with access to information and ideas from the outside world.

A North Korean Father Risks Everything for Family | Doohyun’s Story

April 18, 2024

I lived in North Korea for over 20 years, and for much of that time, I believed my life was normal. I grew up in a big city by the river. When the wind blew, I could smell the water on the breeze, and on holidays, I played along the banks with my friends.

The river ran along the border between North Korea and China. I could see across the water into a different world–one where cars lined the streets, and buildings stretched high into the sky.

But I didn’t realize that life should be different, until the day they took my father away.

My father was a great businessman. He provided for our family despite being forcibly discharged from the military when his Minister of Defense was executed by Kim Il Sung. Labeled as a “traitor,” he was banned from decent jobs and opportunities. 

Still, my father was a clever man and found success within the private market system that many North Koreans rely on to survive. Until one day, the police came to investigate him.

Without reason or warning, my father was arrested and imprisoned. They tortured him for a year. When he was released, my father weighed only 66 pounds.

Even after surviving the unimaginable, he was defiant. He wrote 20 pages of complaints to the Central Party about the human rights abuses he endured. My family was terrified of the consequences, but we couldn’t stop him. He fought for his voice to be heard.

On a warm Spring day, a Mercedes-Benz, license plate number 216, arrived at our home. February 16th was Kim Jong Il’s birthday, and cars with this number were only given to his closest aides. My father spoke with the man for hours about his letter. The man apologized and promised something like this wouldn’t happen again. This gave us a bit of hope for the future – for the possibility of change.

But the man left for Pyongyang. And then the police returned. I never saw my father again.

For two years, my family and I lived in unknowing agony, receiving no news on my father. Eventually, we heard from my father’s friend, who was a police officer, that he had passed away in prison. 

At the very least, we wanted to send him off properly, so we asked that same friend how we could get my father’s body. Three days later, he returned. He told us they would not return my father’s body. My father had been sentenced to eight years in prison. He’d passed away after two. He still had six more years to serve – as a dead body. As a corpse.

For the first time I wondered whether this was the way normal people lived.

In 2009 I decided to escape from North Korea. Life had become near impossible for me after my father’s death, and I continued to face discrimination due to our family’s status in society.

By then, I had been married to my wife, Jiyeon, for two years. Most of our relationship before marriage was through the phone, because we lived far apart, and traveling in North Korea is difficult. So we called each other every night and talked for hours. 

Now, I didn’t know if I was going somewhere she would never be able to reach. I told her it was a business trip. Two weeks. I’ll just be gone for two weeks

She still cried at the train station, thinking about those two weeks. I couldn’t cry with her because then she would know the truth. So I boarded the train without a word, and watched it take me away from her.

From the moment I escaped North Korea, it felt like I was being chased by a grim reaper. There were multiple close-calls where I felt death breathing down my neck.

I was once hiding in a corn field near the Chinese border. Lying on my stomach, I watched soldiers patrol the area when suddenly, one of them walked towards me. It was too late to run or hide. 

I had brought poison with me in case something like this happened - I knew it would be better to kill myself rather than be captured. But as I prepared to take the poison, I thought of my wife. I thought about how she would never know what happened to me.

In that moment of sheer terror, I heard the sound of water. The soldier stood right beside me but he hadn’t seen me. He had only walked over to relieve himself. For the next few minutes, I couldn’t move. The soldier had left, but my body held onto the terror of that moment. I remained hunched and hurried for the rest of the journey.

Eventually, I made it safely to South Korea. I started working as soon as possible – 12 hour days to pay back the broker fee, and save up money for my wife’s escape. My schedule was just working and sleeping, working and sleeping. It was hard, but for the first time in a long time, I had hope.

I was able to find a broker who put me in contact with my wife. It had been ten months since I’d defected at that point – ten months of her not knowing whether I was dead or alive. The call couldn’t be made in the city because the signal could be intercepted, so my wife and the broker hiked to the top of a mountain.

When we heard each other’s voices again, all we could do was cry. But we didn’t have much time, and so I asked her, you’re coming, right

She said she was.

On December 27th, 2011, Jiyeon crossed the river to escape North Korea on the same route that I took.

As soon as my wife arrived in South Korea, I went to meet her. I was so excited. I couldn’t stop crying. When my wife came into the room, she was crying too – but do you know what’s the first thing she did when she saw me?

She punched me – crying, calling me a liar. And I deserved it.

We live in Utah now with our two beautiful sons. We go fishing, camping, and enjoy the outdoors together. Every time I see them, I realize I’m living in a different world, one where we can finally dream and decide our own future.

This is the life I’ve made for my children. This is the life my father envisioned for me and for all North Koreans when he made his act of defiance. My father died fighting for his voice to be heard – and now, finally, he’ll be heard by the world.

Doohyun risked everything to create a future where his family could live together in freedom. Their story isn’t unique - there are many more North Koreans waiting and hoping for the day when they can reunite with loved ones. Help make freedom part of every North Korean’s story.

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Since resettling in the United States, Doohyun has completed his undergraduate studies and now works for a North Korean human rights organization. He considers helping the North Korean people to be his life’s mission, continuing his father’s legacy.

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