Using Proactive Information Campaigns to Break the North Korean Regime’s Information Suppression
By Junsoung “Steve” Kim, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor and Benjamin Fu, HRNK Research Intern
October 28, 2020
Freedom of information is a universal right. However, to maintain absolutism and the ruling class' vested rights, the Kim family—North Korea's reigning regime—has attempted to completely prevent the acquisition of outside information by its citizens. Kim Jong-un's desire to retain autocracy has made North Korea the most reclusive country in the world. However, the rapid growth of information technology has weakened the North Korean regime’s control mechanisms over the communications infrastructure. According to Martyn Williams, author of Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive, the regime uses information and communication technology to maintain social and political control. Pyongyang applied information technologies to build a "mosquito net" surveillance system, which blocks outside information from flowing in. For example, North Korea only allows digital communication through the state-run intranet and internet (for a select few elites), media platforms, and software operating systems. Therefore, the North Korean regime uses information technology to maintain an Orwellian society that strictly monitors its own people.
Transgressing Kim's Information Monopoly
Throughout history, information flows have played a significant role in weakening a totalitarian state and turning it into a democratic state. For example, one of reasons why the young generation in Communist Eastern Europe enthusiastically embraced jazz in the 1950s and rock and roll in the 60s, 70s, and 80s was that communist regimes strictly controlled the freedom of emotion, behavior, and thought of the younger generation. For that reason, Washington infused information campaigns through music, dance, art, and film to project images of freedom, choice, and wealth to the young generations in Eastern Europe. American policymakers and strategists saw the necessity to target rebellious youth to trigger the anti-communist movement in communist Eastern European states. Thus, Washington utilized American culture as a part of information campaigns and deployed rock music to appeal to young Eastern Europeans. As those young Eastern Europeans saw American, British, Australian, West German, and Swedish rock bands’ unique and rebellious haircuts and dress styles, it encouraged them to bolster their youthful rebellion into a form of social and political dissent. Therefore, to promote democracy and advance human rights in North Korea, the inflow of information is crucial. The United States and its allies need to engage in operating information campaigns sharing the truth about the Kim regime by using lessons from Cold War information campaigns strategies.
During the Cold War, the United States brought political and cultural changes into communist states by establishing an effective and proactive information campaign against the Soviet Union. It combined both covert and overt programs that created myriad underground information channels to provide foreign information and materials to dissidents and citizens in the Warsaw Pact countries. There was much collaboration as President Reagan actively worked with NGOs, religious institutions, and labor unions to operate humanitarian assistance projects in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Washington worked with smugglers, publishers, philanthropists, and other individuals who could travel across the Warsaw Pact region to bring foreign information into Soviet-subjugated states in the Warsaw Pact.
North Koreans should utilize their growing market force and technology as information campaign tools to breakthrough Pyongyang's censorship wall. Information can influence the citizens to break away from the totalitarian state's narratives, as foreign information changes their perspectives and viewpoints toward those in a more free society. Human rights activists and the free world could operate information campaigns comparable to the Cold War-era information campaign strategies. Significant development of information and distribution of this information will awaken the citizens of North Korea to the regime's absurdities. For example, if an individual was born and raised in North Korea, she or he can only see state-run media outlets and all texts show unending praise of Kim Jong-un, idolizing him as a deity.
Despite the regime's censorship, North Koreans have proven that their thirst for foreign media is inexorable. The government is struggling to stop the public from obtaining information from the outside world. According to a 2015 survey of 350 North Korean defectors, approximately 29% listened to foreign radio, and 92% watched foreign content. The data demonstrates that North Koreans have become self-reliant after the government's public distribution system collapsed after the Arduous March and often use the black market and quasi-state sponsored markets for information and other items. The markets allow for North Koreans to access foreign media and information through unregistered mobile phones, USBs, radios, DVD players, and other electronic devices. There is information flow into North Korea thanks to the growing transport market, creating an ideal environment for operating information campaigns.
Under a robust social control system like the one in North Korea, an appropriate means of bringing information into the North is short-wave radio broadcasts operated by civil society groups and the distribution of USBs designed to avoid censorship by the North Korean authorities. The strategy's effectiveness was proven in a survey conducted by the Unification Media Group (UMG) in 2019. The UMG surveyed 200 North Korean defectors. Of those surveyed, 91% of defectors escaped from the country due to influence from media products purchased from the black market. Several factors press North Koreans to defect, including a collapsing economy, the songbun social classification system, and the deeply flawed health system. Many North Korean homes own televisions, radios, DVD players, and landlines. Hence, human rights activists and the free world need to concentrate their efforts on distributing SD cards and USBs. North Korean human rights activists have urged establishing a mobile phone radio with an undetectable frequency.
Compared to the Cold War era, it is easier to disseminate information into North Korea through markets, a venue for exchanging information. It is estimated that there are more than 500 marketplaces in North Korea. These markets have already exposed different generations to foreign cultures, new values, and new technologies. The jangmadang generation will play an essential part in leading North Korea's democracy movement in the future.
The international community must actively engage in information and psychological campaigns in North Korea to give them access to information. Merging the existing method of information flow into North Korea and the use of advanced technology is essential. As the Cold War proved, joint information campaigns played a decisive role in weakening communist East Germany's totalitarian society. Through multilateral information campaigns, West Germany achieved unification by providing information to the people in East Germany. Information campaign strategies such as using marketplaces and information devices are the most potent weapons to give the North Korean people the information and means to understand the level of oppression exercised by the Kim regime.
North Koreans already rely, directly or indirectly, on the markets for food, other necessities and foreign content and information. Despite Pyongyang’s censorship, citizens still obtain prohibited content. As evidenced by the Cold War, technology and information play vital roles in weakening the authoritarian regime's social and political control. Now is the right time to apply proactive information campaigns. The spread of information technologies and North Korea's current decline have created the right conditions for democratic states to launch an information campaign comparable to those employed during the Cold War. To maximize the effectiveness of the information campaigns targeting Pyongyang, the United States should develop campaign messages, increase content production, and disseminate information to inform the people of North Korea further, and use information to further weaken the regime's totalitarian grip on its people.
Junsoung “Steve” Kim is a recent graduate student from Augusta University, where he received his Master of Public Administration.
 Robert B. King, “North Koreans Want External Information, But Kim Jong-Un Seeks to Limit Access,” CSIS, May 15, 2019, https://www.csis.org/analysis/north-koreans-want-external-information-kim-jong-un-seeks-limit-access.
 Martyn Williams. “Digital trenches: North Korea’s counter-offensive,” HRNK, December 15, 2019, https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/Williams_Digital_Trenches_Web_FINAL.pdf.
 “U.S. State Department Archive: Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, 1989,” U.S. State of Department, https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/rd/17672.htm.
 Rochell Nowaki, “American Idol: American Pop Culture and Soft Power in Cold War Europe,” University of Hawaii, Hilo HOHONU, 2015 Vol. 13.
 Ibid, 52.
 Seth G. Jones, “Going on the Offensive: A U.S. Strategy to Combat Russian Information Warfare,” CSIS, October 2018, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/181002_Russia_Active_Measures_FINAL1.pdf.
 Audra Wolfe, “Project Troy: How Scientists Helped Refine Cold War Psychological Warfare,” Atlantic, December 1, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/12/project-troy-science-cold-war-psychological-warfare/576847/.
 Nat Kretchun, Catherine Lee, and Seamus Tuohy, “Compromising Connectivity,” Intermedia, 2017, 11.
 You Gene Kim, “The Odyssey of North Korean Defectors: Issues and Problems in the Migration Process,” the City University of New York (CUNY), CUNY Academic Works, 5-2015.
 “A Survey on the North Korean Media Environment and North Korean Exposure to Foreign Media,” The Unification Media Group, http://unimedia.utilline.com/bbs/board_view.php?bbs_code=bbsIdx14&num=155767&page=1&keycode=&keyword=&c1=&c2=&sub_code=.
 Joo Sung-ha, “The evolution of Jangmadang Episode 3: the North Korean market, where Cuckoo (South Korean rice cooker) cookers are sold,” NK Login, August 23, 2019, https://nklogin.com/post/Postmng?ptype=v&contentkey=BFC1566549153.
 Anna Fifield, “A new film captures North Korea’s ‘bold and audacious’ millennials,” Washington Post, December 15, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/12/15/the-jangmadang-generation-new-film-shows-how-millennials-are-changing-north-korea/.
 Dierk Hoffman, “The GDR’s Westpolitik and everyday anticommunism in West Germany,” Asian Journal of German and European Studies volume 2, Article number: 11 (2017).
 John Sifton, “Unprecedented Glimpse of Crisis in North Korea,” Human Rights Watch, August 21, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/08/21/unprecedented-glimpse-crisis-north-korea.
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HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.