North Korea is built on a myth: that it is a great country to live in, that nothing is lacking, and that the outside world should be viewed with fear and distrust. When people discover that their homeland is built on lies, they lose faith in the regime.
The lies have been so pervasive that even the most apolitical information can corrode them. A North Korean watching a South Korean love story on a foreign Korean DVD would not fail to notice, for example, that the refrigerator in the background is full of food.
Barbara Demick tells a story about a North Korean she met sometime around 2004, who had worked for the country’s fisheries division. He had access to foreign radio via a Chinese fishing boat that was confiscated for entering North Korean waters. The boat had a radio, and so he was able to listen to a South Korean radio drama. One such drama featured two women living in an apartment complex who are fighting over a parking space. Initially, the North Korean thought it was a parody: How could South Korea possibly have so many cars that people fight for parking spaces? He soon figured out that it was not a joke. A year later, he defected.
If a few snippets of South Korean radio or television can shatter North Koreans’ vision of the world, just imagine if they had access to the World Wide Web. Of course, any such access would be surveilled and censored to unimaginable extremes. North Korea’s leaders are likely watching China, which has shown great skill in employing both technology and human censors to keep its Internet in check. Yet even with these controls the Internet has transformed countless Chinese lives by granting previously unimaginable access to information and (virtual) assembly.
In North Korea, where the regime is far more brittle and shrouded in myth, the effect would be even more dramatic. No, the Internet would not automatically trigger a North Korean spring. Revolutions are sparked by economic and political crises, or other events that brings public discontent to a boiling point. But when such events occur, a networked and informed society is far more likely to rise to the occasion.