North Koreans are indeed getting more information than ever before. Computers, television, DVDs, MP3 players and USB drives have found their way into North Korean hands. While domestic televisions must be fixed to official channels, North Koreans are increasingly gaining access to television sets that are capable of showing foreign broadcasts. Others modify their televisions to dodge state controls.
Modifying television sets is not a new phenomenon. In Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick describes how in the 1990s a young North Korean named Jun-sang bought a Sony television that had been fixed to government stations and had its tuners disabled by a North Korean version of “crippleware,” ensuring that televisions wouldn’t receive foreign broadcasts. He registered the set with the Electric Wave Inspection Bureau, which put a paper seal over the television’s buttons to certify it had been preset on the politically correct station. Television inspectors would show up unexpectedly to make sure nobody tampered with the sets.
Jun-sang, eager for news from outside North Korea, used a sewing needle to push the buttons without damaging the seal and also constructed his own antenna. Then, when everyone was asleep, he listened to South Korean television.
What he learned turned his world upside down.
He heard that the United States was supplying thousands of tons of rice in humanitarian aid. A U.S. congressional delegation said in a news conference that 2 million had died of starvation in North Korea. And for the first time Jun-sang heard the actual voice of his own leader, Kim Jong-il, whose words were usually read by reverent North Korean radio announcers. Kim’s voice was tinny, old, and utterly devoid of mystique. “Listening to South Korean television was like looking in the mirror for the first time in your life and realizing you were unattractive,” Demick wrote. In Jun-sang’s case, these realizations contributed to his crisis of faith in the regime and his ultimate decision to defect.
Examples like these illustrate how even the most basic access to information could be devastating to the North Korean regime.