While foreign analysts kept guessing at the state of nuclear development in North Korea, one thing remained certain in 2004: There is no free press in the country, only government outlets that voice the pronouncements of Kim Jong Il’s authoritarian regime.
Although the government announced a program of tightly circumscribed economic reforms two years ago, these changes have not engendered significant political reform. And while some information has begun to flow from the country, it appears largely to be an accident of deteriorating central control.
A massive train explosion in Ryongchon near the Chinese border in April killed at least 161 people—many of them children—injured thousands, and brought hordes of foreign journalists to the area. None of the journalists ever saw the site of the explosion; they remained camped out in the Chinese town of Dandong, interviewing foreign aid workers North Korea had allowed into the country. This lack of access was not surprising; foreign journalists are rarely allowed into North Korea, except on restricted and heavily supervised trips.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which broadcasts in Korean, English, Russian, and Spanish, had its own version of events. “The Korean people’s spirit of guarding the leader with their very lives was fully displayed when there was an unexpected explosion at Ryongchon Railway Station,” began a KCNA report about teachers who had died rushing into burning school buildings to save portraits of Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung. “Many people of the county evacuated portraits before searching after their family members or saving their household goods,” KCNA reported.
Had it not occurred so close to China, the Ryongchon explosion might not have made it into the news at all. In the border region, an increase in illegal and informal trade, as well as the traffic of North Korean defectors and migrant workers, has resulted in more communication with the outside world. Family members outside the country have reported talking to North Koreans who use illegally smuggled cell phones in that area to make and receive international phone calls, according to news reports. Immediately after the train explosion occurred, the North Korean government temporarily severed all international phone lines and banned all mobile phones, cutting off a short-lived domestic mobile-phone service that had begun in November 2002.
It is illegal for North Koreans to listen to foreign radio broadcasts, watch foreign television, or read foreign newspapers. Radios and televisions sold inside North Korea are programmed to pick up signals only from state media, and citizens must register their sets. But defectors have reported using radios smuggled in from China or rigged to receive foreign broadcasts, a practice that is punishable by imprisonment.
In September, KCNA accused the U.S. government of sending small radios and TVs programmed to international frequencies into the country. The news agency quoted an official who called this an “intrusion of rotten imperialist reactionary culture” that proved “how desperately they are running about with bloodshot eyes to destroy the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea].” In 2003, South Korean officials foiled the attempt of a group of South Korea–based human rights activists to use helium balloons to smuggle radios into North Korea.
One bright spot came in June, when, after three years of negotiations, Germany opened the first Western cultural center in the capital, Pyongyang. The Goethe Center allows uncensored access to German reading materials. Most of the library’s contents are technical and medical literature, but the collection includes newspapers.