During a famine in the North in the mid-1990s, the Kim regime began to tolerate illegal trade because it was the only option to feed a starving population. Since then, black-market commerce has been nearly impossible to stamp out. And some of the hottest commodities—particularly for young people who don’t even remember a North Korea before that underground trade existed—have been foreign music and movies, along with the Chinese-made gadgets to play them.
A 2010 study by the US Broadcasting Board of Governors found that 74 percent of North Koreans have access to a TV and 46 percent can access a DVD player. Thanks to the flourishing black market, the jangmadang generation’s technology has advanced well beyond radios and DVDs. Despite North Korea’s near-complete lack of Internet access, there are close to 3.5 million PCs in the country and 5 million tablets, according to North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity.
Perhaps the most important piece of hardware in North Korea today is what’s known as a notel—a small, portable video player sold for $60 to $100 and capable of handling multiple formats. It has a screen, a rechargeable battery to deal with frequent blackouts, and crucially, USB and SD card ports. In a surprise move in December, the North Korean government legalized the devices, perhaps as part of a bid to modernize its propaganda machine, according to Seoul-based news outlet Daily NK. The result is millions of ready customers for the USB sticks smuggled across the Chinese border.
In one of North Korea’s bustling markets, a buyer might quietly ask for something “fun,” meaning foreign, or “from the village below,” referring to South Korea. The seller may lead him or her to a private place, often someone’s home, before turning over the goods. The foreign data is then consumed on a notel among small, discreet groups of mostly young people, friends who enter into an unspoken pact of breaking the law together so that no one can rat out anyone else. Read more