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Survey: North Koreans still watching South Korea media despite brutal crackdown

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North Koreans have continued to access media from the outside world despite a brutal clampdown inside the country, according to a new survey by Unification Media Group and Daily NK. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
North Koreans have continued to access media from the outside world despite a brutal clampdown inside the country, according to a new survey by Unification Media Group and Daily NK. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, Oct. 21 (UPI) -- North Koreans continue to consume videos and music from South Korea despite the growing threat of prison terms and even death, according to a new survey of both defectors and people still inside the country.

The survey, released on Wednesday by Seoul-based broadcaster Unification Media Group and partner news site Daily NK, found that 96% of respondents currently living in North Korea viewed foreign content, including popular South Korean series such as Crash Landing on You and Squid Game.

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Fifty people inside the tightly controlled state took part in the survey via clandestine phone interviews, while 100 recent defectors in South Korea recounted their experiences in the North through face-to-face interviews.

Foreign media consumption in North Korea has gotten far riskier since the passage of an "anti-reactionary thought" law in December 2020, which calls for punishments that range from hard labor to death for crimes such as importing videos or even singing in a South Korean style.

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The survey clearly demonstrates a hunger for information despite the climate of fear inside the country, said Lee Kwang-baek, president of Unification Media Group.

"The punishment for the offenders who watch, listen to or disseminate outside information in North Korea has been noticeably intensified, so North Korean people are afraid of exposing themselves to outside information," Lee told UPI. "[But] the means of receiving external information -- media and digital devices -- have constantly increased. "

Some 88% of North Korean respondents said they personally knew someone punished under the anti-reactionary law, including those sent to the regime's notorious political prison camps. A 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry report documented crimes against humanity in the camps, including torture, rape, execution, deliberate starvation and forced labor, that were "without parallel in the contemporary world."

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Public executions have also been held for individuals accused of watching or distributing South Korean videos, according to reports from Daily NK and human rights investigators.

Viewing and listening habits are changing under the crackdown, the survey found, with only 2% of current North Korean residents saying they consumed foreign media almost every day compared to 25% of the defectors, all of whom left the country before the anti-reactionary law was enacted.

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Lee said that North Koreans are finding a variety of ways to adapt to the worsening media environment, such as using apps to bypass government-imposed cell phone restrictions and sharing content on smaller SD cards instead of CDs and DVDs.

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"Even though the control over outside information has gotten egregious, the ceaseless efforts based on courage and perseverance that North Korean people make ... to obtain and consume outside information, impresses us much," Lee said.

In addition to entertainment, the survey showed a high demand for news about the outside world as well as conditions inside North Korea, which has kept its borders sealed since the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"If the international community has an understanding of the changes in North Korean society and successfully [sends] external information through the means of radio waves or storage devices to North Korea, we can achieve, protect and enhance the freedom of information and right to know in North Korean society," Lee said.

At a panel discussion for the survey's release on Wednesday, other North Korea-focused activists and researchers called information a key catalyst for change in North Korea -- especially as Pyongyang has repeatedly rejected calls for diplomacy amid a flurry of missile and weapons tests.

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"We've pretty much hit the limit with sanctions, and because of the stance of the North Korean government there's not that much that we can do with negotiations and engagement," Sokeel Park, South Korean country director for NGO Liberty in North Korea, said.

"Cultural power and information power... remains an underutilized and underinvested-in strategy that we could leverage to push for long-term positive change, opening and, ultimately, freedom for North Korean people."

The survey has not yet been published online.

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