Korea was described as the “hermit kingdom” in the bygone era of the Choson dynasty which ruled from the late 1300s until the early 1900s. At the time, Korea was intentionally isolated by its rulers, with unauthorised interaction between foreigners and Koreans largely banned. Today, North Korea continues this ancient tradition of self-isolation.
While all communist regimes have been remarkably unenthusiastic about interactions between their subjects and the outside world, North Korea has been exceptionally zealous in such matters. Indeed, the government in Pyongyang has done everything it can to make sure its people only have one source for information about the outside world: state-controlled media.
This policy was first introduced in the late 1950s. Remarkably, in their efforts to keep the country isolated, the North Korean government did not make a major distinction between their supposedly friendly communist allies and the “hostile” capitalist world. In the North Korea of the 1970s and 1980s, all foreigners, even from such “esteemed” allies as the Soviet Union and East Germany, were subject to the same inordinate level of surveillance.
How does this system work in practice?
Sealing radios and TVs
In the 1960s, North Korea became the only country in the world that criminalised the possession of tunable radio sets. All radio sets sold in North Korean shops had – and still have – fixed tuning, so they can only be used to listen to the small number of official North Korean radio stations.
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If a North Korean buys a tunable radio in a hard currency shop, or brings one from overseas, he or she is required by law to immediately submit the dangerous machine to the police station – whereupon, police technicians will disable the tuning mechanism and return the radio to the owner (interestingly, the owner is charged by the police for this operation). In such a way, the ideological health of the population, regardless of whether they have access to foreign currency and travel or not, is guaranteed.
To ensure that the owners of radios do not secretly repair their tuning mechanisms, all radio sets have to be sealed. To ensure that said the seals remain unbroken, local authorities conduct spot checks at random several times a year, usually at midnight. If someone is discovered to either possess an illegal tunable radio or even just to have tampered with the seal of their radio, punishment can be internal exile to remote parts of the country or even a few years’ imprisonment. Though, rampant corruption means that those who have the money can buy their way out of trouble.
In areas near the border with China, the authorities also have to fight another threat: The possibility that their people will secretly watch Korean-language Chinese TV broadcasts. Such Chinese broadcasts target the educated and affluent ethnic Korean minority in China, whose members tend to live on the Chinese side of the Sino-North Korean border. Chinese programming is, by North Korean standards, highly frivolous and contains much in the way of dangerous ideas and information. Korean-language Chinese channels also frequently run South Korean movies and serials which are seen by the Pyongyang authorities as especially dangerous. Thus, in the borderland areas, TV receivers have their channel dials, switches and buttons sealed. And until recently, remote controls were also banned.
The attitude toward the print media is even stricter. Since the early 1960s, all foreign non-technical publications have been sent to special sections in libraries and only those with the requisite security clearances were allowed to access dangerous uncensored news about the outside world. Tellingly, no exceptions were made even for the publications of supposedly “fraternal” communist countries – Pravda was seen as potentially just as dangerous as The Washington Post.
Access to the outside?
Until the early 2000s, it remained the exception for North Koreans to go overseas in a private capacity. People travelled to abroad only when on official business, and all unnecessary interaction with locals was strongly discouraged. Things have changed a bit in recent years, but even now, only a small minority of North Koreans can hope to get a passport and permission to travel overseas.
Foreign visitors to North Korea have always been a tiny and tightly controlled group. Marriages between North Koreans and foreign citizens were explicitly forbidden in the early 1960s, and most North Koreans who had married foreigners earlier were made to divorce. Their spouses – overwhelmingly women from the Soviet Union and communist countries of Eastern Europe – were extradited back to their native countries.
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Since then, with the exception of some 5,000 Chinese nationals, all foreigners who are allowed to be present in North Korea are expatriates, personnel of foreign embassies and company offices, sent to Pyongyang by their respective governments. Foreign expatriates who reside in North Korea still face many restrictions.
These include a near-complete ban on visiting private houses. As a rule, foreigners can interact only with those North Koreans who are authorised to be in contact with foreigners, and these North Koreans are also supposed to report their encounters to the security services, most of them are informers anyway.
When the Internet, the ultimate information disseminator, began to grow, North Korean authorities made a rather radical decision: Ordinary citizens were not allowed access to the Internet. Access to the World Wide Web is provided only to foreign embassies and missions, as well as to a handful of top-level officials – largely from the security and intelligence services. A small number of military research and development centres also have Internet connections, but their personnel can only surf sites which censors deem necessary to acquire technical and scientific information.
For the more affluent and privileged, there is an Internet substitute, a nationwide intranet, known as the Kwangmyong network. This network has no physical connection to the World Wide Web. Even the Kwangmyong network can only be accessed from an official institution. Private subscriptions, briefly possible, have been discontinued.
All of these measures are further strengthened by heavy punishments reserved for those who find ways to circumvent these restrictions. Theoretically, people can still be imprisoned for possessing a tunable radio, watching ideologically suspicious movies, or talking politics with a foreigner – though, the chances of getting into serious trouble for these transgressions are increasingly theoretical.
However, many allegedly “paranoid” features of the North Korean state actually have very rational explanations. The North Korean authorities go to great lengths to isolate their people because they really do have something important to hide: The existence of the super-rich South Korea, whose stunning economic success may become politically destabilising for the regime.
When Korea was divided in 1945, the area that was to become North Korea was the most advanced industrial region in East Asia outside Japan, while the South was a largely undeveloped agricultural backwater. However, after decades of record-breaking economic growth, South Korea has become a world-class economic powerhouse. Meanwhile, North Korea’s centrally planned economy, after a short period of rapid growth, stagnated and then collapsed. The per capita GDP of South Korea exceeds $20,000, while North Korea’s is $800-900.
For the North Korean government, this economic inequality represents a huge challenge. For decades, the North Korean official media told its people horror stories about the alleged destitution suffered by South Koreans. Such stories were necessary to justify the existence of the North.
The North Korean government has serious reasons to fear the spread of information about the prosperity of South Korea (and also China, albeit to a lesser extent). They do not want to follow East Germany’s fate. So, they do what they can to keep their population isolated and ignorant of what is going on in the outside world to ensure the survival of their regime.
Andrei Lankov is a professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.