Alexander F. Yuan/AP
When Yeonmi Park was a young girl, she went to her uncle’s house to watch a movie. This wasn’t a state-run broadcast that praised the Dear Leader. The movie at her uncle’s house was illegal.
She covered the windows with blankets, turned the volume down low, and huddled-in close around the TV. She watched a pirated copy of Titanic.
“When I saw that movie for the first time, I was very confused,” Yeonmi Park says. “I never heard my father telling my mother that he loved her. And my mother never told me she loved me, either. To me, love was only expressed [for] the Dear Leader. So, it was a very odd concept to me — how can a man die for a woman?”
By the time Park escaped North Korea in 2007, she’d seen James Bond, South Korean dramas — even American wrestling matches.
“Just for a couple of hours, you forget about how life is so hard,” she says. “Almost dreaming about a different planet.”
Yeonmi Park’s story is not the North Korea we know.
We see goosestepping soldiers in extravagant military parades. We see a hermit kingdom in isolation. But in today’s society, even the most repressive regime can’t keep everything out.
“The idea that North Korea is an information black hole is simply not true anymore,” says James Pearson, reporter for Reuters in South Korea and co-author of the book, North Korea Confidential.
Pearson says illicit media undermines the regime because even Hollywood movies like Titanic can be subversive.
“That can start to change people’s thinking,” he says. “When you talk to defectors who’ve left the country, many of them say, ‘It was looking at foreign media that started to help me question what it is that I hear from the government. Perhaps things aren’t okay here.’ “
According to the latest report by Washington-based research group InterMedia, when a group of 350 North Korean defectors were surveyed, 92 percent said they watched foreign content on a DVD player.
You can find anything but a cat’s horn
To understand how illicit media gets into such a closed-off society, you have to look to the mid-1990s. The fall of the Soviet Union crushed North Korea’s fragile economy, and floods brought devastating famine. The North Korean government failed to feed its people.
In the time of crisis, when North Koreans could no longer rely on the state, grassroots capitalism emerged in its place. Makeshift stands popped up around the country, where people traded goods and food.
“During the famine, people said that the ones who turned to capitalism and trading were the ones that survived,” Pearson says. “And that has been the real economy ever since. In a way, it’s kind of North Korea’s biggest open secret.”
The black market has grown because government officials benefit. State salaries are so low that border guards can easily be bribed. Goods flow in from China — and these days, it’s more than food.
“There’s a saying in North Korea,” Pearson says. “You can find anything but a cat’s horn. Meaning that, if it exists, you can probably find it in the markets.”
Charles, a North Korean defector, once played a role. He used to peddle bootleg DVDs to make money — he says he risked his life doing it.
NPR contacted Charles through the nonprofit Liberty in North Korea. We’re withholding his last name to protect relatives he left behind.
“One of my friend’s father was a police officer,” he says. “At midnight, he’d go out to residencies and crack down on foreign media.”
Despite being a government official, his friend’s father kept the confiscated DVDs for himself. So, Charles always knew where to find the best movies. Without the father ever knowing, Charles secretly copied the confiscated discs and redistributed them right back onto the market.
“I was a kid — I was 14 or 15 — so nobody would suspect me. I’d hide [DVDs] under my clothes, and some of them in my jackets, inside the pockets in the jackets,” Charles says. “Everywhere.”
Since Charles left North Korea, it’s become much easier to conceal foreign content. Traders and smugglers have turned to USB sticks and micro SD cards, instead of DVDs.
“That’s been a really popular way to spread information,” says James Pearson of Reuters. “You can hide them between the pages of a book, you can swallow them, even, if you’re caught with them.”
Demand is so high, that some Chinese companies manufacture products for the North Korean market. One device is called the notel. It’s a portable DVD player with a USB input. Basically, you plug two things in at once: the illicit media on a USB stick, and, in case of inspection, a state-approved propaganda disc.
“Like, ‘Kim Jong Il’s Greatest Hits,’ ” Pearson says. “Should there be a knock on the door from the bowibu, which is the Gestapo, Stasi-esque institution in North Korea, you can just pull out [and hide] the USB stick, open up the DVD drive and say, ‘Look, I was watching this.’ “
Change from within
As common as it’s become in North Korea, viewing and selling illicit media is still dangerous. Under Kim Jong Un, defectors report stricter crackdowns by specialized government units who are much harder to bribe. But it doesn’t seem to deter people from watching, in secret.
“People crave to know what they don’t know. People want to do what they’re told not to do,” says Jieun Baek, author of North Korea’s Hidden Revolution.
She says it’s an opportunity for governments like the U.S. and South Korea to step-in and take advantage of the demand for illegal foreign media.
“South Korea has both government and independently funded programs that have been beaming information into North Korea for decades. Same with the U.S.,” Baek says. “But all of this has to be ramped-up substantially for there to be an effective counter-balance to North Korea’s domestic propaganda machine.”
She says it’s a cost-effective way to lay the groundwork for long-term change. But it won’t happen overnight.
“I think it’s important to not over-romanticize the power of foreign information. ‘Pyangyang Square” is not going to take place tomorrow because of a couple of USBs,” Baek says. “But by flooding this country with foreign information, there will be dissenters, in both thought and action, who will emerge from within North Korean society.”
Radio editor Arezou Rezvani and digital producer Hannah Bloch contributed to this report.