Signs of change in North Korea

CPJ may have raised some eyebrows with this year’s list of the world’s 10 most censored countries. North Korea was relegated to the number two slot, behind Eritrea. In our last ranking, in 2006, we ranked North Korea as the worst, and many other organizations continue to do that.

But in justifying our decision for 2012, we noted that cracks in the North’s information wall are beginning to appear:

Ruling elites have access to the World Wide Web, but the public is limited to a heavily monitored and censored network with no connections to the outside world. While The Associated Press opened a Pyongyang bureau in January 2012 staffed with North Koreans, the AP wasn’t granted its own Internet connection and the correspondents have no secure line of communication. A Japan-based media support group, Asiapress, has been giving North Korean volunteers journalism training and video cameras to record daily life in the North. Downloaded onto DVDs or memory sticks, the images are smuggled across the porous border with China and then sent to Japan for broader distribution.

A lengthy study released on May 11, “A Quiet Opening,” by Nat Kretchun, associate director of InterMedia in Washington, and Jane Kim, Korea projects coordinator of the East West Coalition in Beijing, takes a deep look at conditions in the countryside, not just in and around Pyongyang’s leadership compounds. They found that at the grassroots level, North Koreans have unprecedented access to external media, via bootlegged foreign TV and radio signals and smuggled foreign DVDs. Add to that smuggled mobile phones and you have an increasingly dynamic media mix that has become irreversible. Yes, the report says, North Korea remains incredibly isolated, but, “despite the incredibly low starting point, important changes in the information environment in North Korean society are underway,” it says.

A personal note: With a growing stream of asylum seekers in South Korea and economic immigrants flowing into China, there is a steadily growing amount of reporting on North Korea. One of my favorites is a 2009 book by Barbara Demick, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who was based in Seoul, called “Nothing to Envy — Ordinary lives in North Korea.” It tapped those sorts of sources to paint a very different picture of North Korea than the one that usually makes it into print.