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The Role of North Korean Defectors in the Transmission of Information to and from North Korea

October 25, 2010

The following is the prepared text of a presentation at the 2010 International Conference on Human Rights sponsored by NKnet, the Sejong Institute and NED. The conference was held in Washington, D.C., on October 21.

The Current State of Affairs

North Korea currently maintains one of the most repressive systems of information censorship in the world and punishes its people on charges of treason by designating certain information, which is deemed ordinary in other states, as classified.

Since the blocking of borders between China and North Korea, cases of illegal trespassing and subsequent smuggling have declined, but with legitimate travel to China on the rise, more information has been entering the nation, and with markets within North Korea expanding, outside information continues to increase.

The currency reforms last November caused a several-months long collapse of the market, which in turn reduced the amount of information entering the country, but with the state of the economy at its worst, law evading actions by soldiers guarding the borders are bound to increase. There are signs that suggest the likelihood of an increase in illegal trespassing in the provinces of North Hamkyung and Yankang, and the number of defectors is again on the rise.

Furthermore, a drastic increase in demand by NGOs and the media for information on the goings-on within North Korea has placed a lot of North Korean citizens residing by the border into the role of information providers. This is the reason why, despite the North Korean authorities’ crackdown on such acts, a host of survival tactics are gaining further ground.

1. The Evolution of Information Inflow and Government Responses

◯ Changes in Methods of Infiltrating North Korea with Outside Information

In the 1980s, any outside information that reached the North Koreans came in the form of South Korean propaganda leaflets sent across the border via helium balloons and radio broadcasts. At this time, the effect of outside information on the North Korean people was negligible.

Even until the mid-90s, radio broadcasts were their sole means of contact with outside information. In special cases, foreign magazines and videos were smuggled across the border, but these cases were few and far between, as were the number of radio listeners.

However, with millions of people dead of starvation and the number of North Korean defectors ever on the rise, the trickle of outside information from China sharply increased, and the dominant means of contact with the outside world changed from radio to video.

DVD and CD players made in China reached North Korean homes, thereby increasing the demand for South Korean videos. With the market rapidly expanding, videos became a major money-making source. In China, a factory was set up to create copies of South Korean soap operas, and within North Korea, a distribution network was established.

• As the authorities focus their attention on inspecting South Korean videos, MP4 players, which do not have the downside of having to worry about electricity cut-offs linked with inspections, are gaining popularity. MP3 players equipped with radio transmitters used to be all the rage, but with state censorship on radios, the demand has been moving the way of MP4s.

However, most recently, the demand for memory cards that fit inside laptop computers has been rising. As most systems in North Korea become computerized and domestic intranet services develop, computer usage is encouraged for high level officials, and some seize upon the opportunity to buy their own personal computers. One recent contact with North Korean officials revealed that the demand for laptops was high and that even among top-level officials laptops were considered to be the best gifts. That the laptop is a high-priced commodity, or a privilege of the rich, keeps it from reaching the masses, but outside information is nevertheless getting through to the high-level officials.

Video files are transferred increasingly through USB memory sticks. Videos transferred as such are usually the most preferred by the society’s wealthy, as the files can be safely stored, and allow for lengthy high-definition films.

◯ The Effects and Consequences of Propaganda Leaflets

• Before 1994, the South Korean National Defense Ministry’s tactic of sending propaganda leaflets and other commodities across the border had a fifty-fifty chance of success, but since the late-90s, when food shortages started to worsen, it became the decisive strategy in dismantling a North Korean army corps near the border.

With army supplies being cut due to worsening food shortages and chaos arising in the far regions of the country, the morale of the entire army was at its worst, and the usage of so-called ‘strategic items’ that accompanied the propaganda leaflets — South Korean ramen noodles, toothpaste, toothbrushes, etc. — by North Korean soldiers, pushed North Korea’s ideology-filled mentality to the brink of collapse. The tactic’s effectiveness was revealed when Kim Jong Il’s very first request in normalizing relations with South Korea’s newly established Kim Dae Jung administration, which came to power in 1998, was to put an end to the practice. The North Koreans were extremely fearful of the South Korean government’s tactics because only a complete blocking of outside information could prevent ideological cracks from forming within, and ensure a complete state of mental readiness for their soldiers in the major army corps near the Military Demarcation Line.

North Korea was able to gain a lot of comfort from the decisions made by the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun administrations to halt the practice.

• Propaganda Leaflets Sent by North Korean Defectors

Although unable to send a barrage of propaganda leaflets over the border in a manner previously employed by the South Korean government, North Korean defectors were able to replicate the effect by sending over leaflets that denounce the Kim Jung Il regime in language that taps into the ordinary North Korean’s mind.

Such leaflets are usually sent to permeate the regions of Hwanhae province that maintain a high military presence, and consequently, a large number of accidents have arisen due to the soldiers’ weakened state of minds.

The recent threat by the North Korean military of being able to target, with precision, the regions from which the propaganda leaflets originate, reflects its fear of the effectiveness of such leaflets.

Some of the leaflets have been drifting as far as Nampo or Pyongyang, causing the North’s National Security Agency to often shut off entire areas from access. This has been adding to the unease of the North Korean people.

• The South Korean government, which should have taken action to resume the sending of leaflets after the Cheonan incident, has been caught up in inertia and has failed to read North Korean intentions. This is the equivalent of giving up one of the central means of weakening the strength of a major corps that forms a part of the hundreds-of-thousands-strong North Korean army.

◯ The Distribution of Information through Cell Phones

• As cell phone usage skyrockets in the border regions of North Korea and China, Chinese phone companies have been further installing cell phone relay stations. This has made it easier to connect to the outside world from the border regions, and now many North Koreans stay connected by using Chinese cell phones.

• The fastest way of leaking information inside North Korea to the outside world is through cell phone usage, and this has prompted the North Korean authorities to invest monstrous sums of money and labor into stopping the trend.

• The North Korean National Security Agency gave cell phone wave detectors, manufactured in locations such as Europe and Japan, to its agents working near the border so that they could arrive at the scene within five minutes of detecting cell phone use. In the past, those who were caught were punished by fines or forced labor, but now they are being punished under espionage charges.

• The extremely tight oversight has drastically reduced cross-border calls by civilians, but agents of the National Security Agency are quickly becoming the culprits of information leakage, by exploiting their rights to carry cell phones and their ties to the outside world.

• The agents, who do not have to be wary of others within the country, are blatantly leaking information, and are becoming easier targets to link up with. The quality of information has also gone higher. However, dealings with these agents can quickly turn into a trap, with many of them being linked to kidnapping cases of North Korean defectors.

◯ North Korean Authorities’ Response to the Influx of Information

• It has been recently confirmed that the authorities are conducting full body scans of everyone legitimately leaving the country. All North Koreans who board the international train that runs from Pyongyang to Beijing are reportedly subject to full body scans, and the detection of a memory card is enough cause for espionage interrogation.

• With the number of radio listeners on the rise, there have been regular searches on homeowners’ premises. In order to block circulation of South Korean videos, its distributors will either have to face public execution or, if caught in the act, become political prisoners.

• Crackdowns on new technological devices such as MP3s and MP4s are becoming more strict. Radio features on the devices as well as their contents are subject to random inspections, and those who turn out guilty are bound to become political prisoners.

• With the emergence of laptop computers and USB sticks, all laptop users must be registered with the authorities and are subject to regular software checks.

• Despite the crackdowns, it is becoming harder to restrict civilians from gaining access to information outside the eyes of the inspectors. There are signs that point to the trend of information having been spread before a censor reaches the source, and with rampant corruption among the inspectors, the authorities maintaining tight control on information seems no longer viable.

2. The Role of North Korean Defectors in Transmitting and Circulating Information

• Tight information control by the North Korean authorities is making it harder to send information into the country, but with a rising number of North Korean defectors settling in South Korea and more people maintaining links with those inside North Korea, the actual amount of outside information within the North Korean borders is increasing.

• Many North Korean defector organizations are playing a role in transmitting information to North Korea. The North Korea Strategic Center, in partnership with Far East Broadcasting, sent in four thousand radios over the course of two years, and has additional plans to send in videos and information through USB memory sticks. 

• The reason why North Korean defectors cannot but play a central role in these efforts is because working with contacts inside North Korea must be based upon trust, which is usually gained from the experience of having already known each other in North Korea.

• With the economic situation deteriorating, there are more and more people within North Korea’s elite class who are willing to trade internal information with outsiders for money. Such circumstances point to the likelihood of a further increase in the transmission of information.

◯ The Necessity of Strengthening North Korean Defectors’ Capabilities

• It is important to build the capabilities of North Korean defectors so that their belief in democratic principles helps them steadfastly carry out political democratization movements in North Korea.

• Journalistic capabilities must be strengthened for those defectors who work within the media in order to ensure that information leaked from the North is presented to the outside world in a timely and precise manner.

◯ Precautions in Transmitting Information to and from North Korea

• With North Korean intelligence agencies taking on a more central role in leaking internal information, therein lies the danger of North Korean defectors becoming targets. One defector who worked at Free North Korea Radio was found missing after having contact with a North Korean insider near Dandong. Similar incidents have happened, and it has become a necessity to be prepared for such situations.

◯ Proliferation of Outside Information Will Bring Regime Change

The first step in democratizing North Korea will be more about infusing North Korea with outside information, rather than extracting information from within North Korea.

In the cases of Eastern Europe and China, wide circulation of outside information preceded changes in their regimes. A change in perception by the general public is what will essentially change the regime, which is why working from the outside has its limitations if such work fails to reach the North Koreans.

• Therefore, it is necessary for either North Korean defector organizations or North Korean human rights related organizations to concentrate their efforts on spreading, within North Korea, information concerning the outside world. Future projects regarding North Korea must take into account domestic changes in the North.

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