“Citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech and of the press,” says Article 67 of the North Korean constitution. Nobody believes it. No radio, television, Internet or newspaper from the outside world is allowed into North Korea, and all news in the 65-year-old hermit state comes from the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), staffed exclusively by members of the ruling party.
The late leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, whose death in 2011 was said by KCNA to have awoken bears from hibernation, helped the country’s newsmakers understand their role with his 1983 book, The Great Teacher of Journalists. In it, newspapers are advised to carry articles that “unfailingly hold the president in high esteem, adore him, and praise him.” Every word spoken by radio and television announcers must “grasp the hearts of the masses, inspire them strongly, and scare the enemy like a bomb.”
For all the regime’s efforts, North Korea’s 24 million citizens still find ways to glimpse the world outside. Interviews with over 400 defectors summarized in a 2012 US report reveal that South Korean soap operas smuggled in from China on USB sticks are extraordinarily popular, and although a crackdown on the trade has been announced for 2013, there are older ways around the media blackout. North Korean radios are preset to state channels and subject to inspection at any time, but many citizens keep an “unlocked” radio hidden away. The Party’s sophisticated radio-jamming system is power intensive and often off, allowing illegal radios to tune into Seoul-based stations such as Free North Korea Radio, one of several South Korean organizations with networks of undercover journalists in the North.
Activists also send food, supplies and propaganda across the border by balloon. North Korean defector Lee Ju-song, 47, spent New Year’s Day 2012 in the South Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ), filling tall balloons with hydrogen gas. “Many defectors have seen or read a South Korean leaflet in North Korea,” explains Lee. “I am one of them myself.” In December 1995, on a business trip near the North Korean DMZ, Lee noticed white pieces of paper scattered on the ground. Curious, he picked one up and began to read. The contents – information about computers developed in South Korea by Hyundai and Samsung – astonished him, and not long afterward he resolved to leave his homeland. Over the years, balloons have delivered American dollar bills, radios, USB sticks and condoms. Lee sends socks. “Imagine a North Korean soldier wearing these socks or them ending up in the house of an official,” he says. “They’d start to wonder about South Korea. This is psychological warfare.”
[ 1 ] Volunteers in the South Korean Demilitarized Zone pack boxes to send to North Korea, where a pair of socks can trade on the black market for 10 kilograms of corn.
[ 2 ] Each 10-meter-long balloon is inflated with hydrogen, then carried by the wind across the most militarized border in the world. In perfect conditions, balloons can reach as far as North Korean capital, Pyongyang, approximately 150 kilometers away.
[ 3 ] The cardboard boxes are tied shut at the bottom with string, which is connected to timers set to release the contents three hours after launch, scattering the load across a wide area.
[ 4 ] North Korean government agents sometimes poison deliveries, so Lee Ju-song encloses warnings, advising civilians who pick up the socks to rinse them in water for 10 hours before putting them on.
From the pages of COLORS #86 - Making the News.