The Limits of Information in North Korea

North Korean girls use their cell phones in a park.

North Korean girls use their cell phones in a park.

If North Koreans simply knew more about the world outside – or received more accurate information about their own society – they would transform their country. This is an operating assumption behind much of the policy thinking in Washington and Seoul. Both governments pour money into radio stations that beam information into North Korea. Civil society activists, perhaps impatient with the incremental pace of government policy, try to get information into the notoriously isolated country by any means possible, from floating balloons over the border to crossing into the country to proselytize in person.

When the first North Korean defectors began to trickle out of the country, they were astonished to learn about the world outside. The first North Koreans to go to China during the famine years of the mid-1990s couldn’t believe that the communist neighbor they’d always considered economically backward had cutting-edge technology, bustling markets, and affluent consumers. So, too, did the first North Koreans to visit South Korea remark on the startling contrast between the free, prosperous Seoul in front of their eyes and the impoverished dictatorship that had been drilled into their imagination.

But much has changed since the “soft power” strategy of covertly educating North Koreans began in earnest two decades ago. North Koreans are no longer completely in the dark. We can’t quantify the amount of information that has leaked into the country, because we can’t conduct public opinion surveys in North Korea. But we can make indirect assessments. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans saw firsthand the economic progress in China when they went back and forth across the border in the 1990s. Even today, more than 40,000 North Koreans officially visited China in the first quarter of 2012, a 40 percent increase over the same quarter last year. Chinese-made goods are available in private markets throughout North Korea, so even more North Koreans must confront the advanced state of the Chinese economy.

Then there are the more than 50,000 North Korean workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. At this South Korean-run facility located just north of the DMZ, the North Korean workers come face to face with the comparative prosperity of South Korea: the advanced technology, the clean factories, the abundance of food in the cafeteria.

But it’s not only the relatively small class of workers at Kaesong who have contact with South Korea. As a result of the proliferation of private markets, North Koreans now own DVD players, MP3 players, USB sticks, and the like. South Korean movies and soap operas have become quite popular. And many North Korean young people are listening to South Korean-produced K-Pop.

Thanks to the Egyptian company Orascom, there are more than a million North Korean cell phone service subscribers. Which means that information flows more quickly and easily within North Korea. What had once been vertical, with the state in control of what North Koreans know and how they access information, has now become increasingly horizontal.

And yet, despite all this information flow, North Korea has not experienced any major political change. Advocates of the “soft power” strategy argue that it’s just a question of time. All this information flow is like a swarm of termites eating away at the foundations of North Korean society. The edifice looks solid and then, one day, it all just collapses.

That may happen. But I’m not sure whether more information translates into more dissent. The premise of the “soft power” strategy may simply be wishful thinking.

First of all, what matters most is not volume of information but type of information. The inhabitants of Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s knew plenty about the outside world. Guest workers from Poland and Yugoslavia had been going back and forth to Western Europe for decades. East Germans could easily watch West German television. Even the relatively isolated Russians passed around self-published dissident manuscripts.

What made the information flow of 1989 different was that East Germans learned about the possibility of change in Poland, and Romanians learned about the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Albanians learned about the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in Bucharest. It wasn’t random information. It was information about what was suddenly possible from a political point of view in countries that shared similar political structures and cultures.

The same can be said about the “Arab Spring.” Tunisians, Egyptians, and Bahrainis did not lack information about the outside world or about their own societies. What electrified the citizenries in these countries was information about what had become politically possible all of the sudden in the Arab world. They could rise up against an autocrat and no one intervened from the outside to prop up the dictator.

It wasn’t a question of an increase in information. It was a question of a decrease in fear.

North Koreans have no such examples to follow at the moment. Information about South Korean wealth may engender sorrow or resentment or envy, but it will not likely create a political movement. Information about pop music, soap operas, and religion may completely transform individuals – but it won’t likely inspire North Koreans to rise up against their leaders.

The difficult truth is that North Korea is not just run by a small handful of aging autocrats. There is a significant elite in the country – political, economic, social – that benefits from the current system. They travel to other countries. They are reasonably well informed about the world. They are largely pragmatic, though they must toe the official political line.

This elite will form the core of a new political and economic order in North Korea. But they won’t change their allegiances simply because of what they hear on foreign radio broadcasts or what they see on black-market DVDs. They will collectively break from the status quo only if their core interests are threatened, if there is a serious power struggle at the top that requires taking sides, or if they are suddenly no longer living in fear.

Knowledge is certainly power. And the free flow of information is a good in and of itself. But we should be careful not to assume that a more widely educated population is a more revolutionary population. Information has its limits.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.