Rogue State. Axis of Evil. Hermit Kingdom. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), otherwise known as North Korea, has plenty of frightening nicknames. And in many cases, they are not far off.
North Korea is notorious as one of the most closed-off, repressive nations in the world. And not without reason. Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, and Human Rights Watch have all consistently ranked North Korea at the very bottom in the world in terms of basic freedoms. And an extensive United Nations Commission of Inquiry report laid out evidence of a systematic and brutal repression of every facet of daily life.
“It’s very hard to sustain that kind of brutal authoritarian regime in this modern world. Information ends up seeping in over time and bringing about change. That’s something that we are constantly looking for ways to accelerate,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in an interview in January 2015. Now, the United States government is putting money where its mouth is – $2,650,000 of it, to be exact.
On September 20, 2016, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor announced they would be accepting proposals for “programs that support the policy objective to promote human rights, increase accountability, and foster the free flow of information into, out of, and within the DPRK.”
These grants can take several forms, including plans to create or acquire content that provides information to North Koreans, projects that document human rights abuses in the DPRK, and programs to help support the defector community and their advocacy.
The first type of project – to create content and help North Koreans gain a fuller picture of the outside world – is perhaps the most intriguing. Several groups, including those run by North Korean defectors, have been using this strategy as a way to undermine the regime in Pyongyang. By smuggling USB sticks filled with American and South Korean TV shows over the border or dropping them from drones, they hope to show North Koreans that the outside world is much different than they have been led to believe.
Projects that combine education and entertainment have had positive effects around the world – a groundbreaking Indian TV show is credited with changing views about marriage for love, for example, and a South African soap opera helped educate its 34 million viewers about HIV prevention.
In North Korea, where the dearth of outside information is particularly stark, a similar approach could yield huge results. In a 2012 survey of North Korean defectors in the South, researchers found a statistically significant link between their exposure to foreign media and positive views of the outside world, particularly the United States and South Korea. Further, these defectors indicated that foreign entertainment media was more trustworthy than radio news broadcasts. One defector noted, “North Korea only shows beautiful images. But in the South Korean dramas, there is fighting and I think that is realistic. There is also poverty, but in North Korea they only show you good things, so it doesn’t seem real.”
So far, American public diplomacy efforts directed at the North Korean people have remained almost entirely focused on radio broadcasting. Voice of America and Radio Free Asia have Korean-language services that send short or medium wave signals into North Korea with news and analysis. The problem is that radio is not only difficult to access, it is incredibly dangerous. Radio signals can only really reach the border areas with any clarity. And owning a free-tuning radio capable of picking up those signals can result in severe punishment. For these reasons, radio listeners remain mostly male and elite.
In contrast, nearly half of North Korean defectors interviewed for the 2012 Intermedia report said that they had watched a foreign DVD while there. And recent media reports extolled the popularity of South Korean dramas among the North Korean population – according to UPI the hit South Korean soap opera “Descendants of the Sun” has been so popular that some slang used in the show has been picked up by North Korean border guards.
While VOA and RFA have been providing a great service to reach the people of North Korea, it is encouraging to see the State Department’s call for proposals to expanding the ways they can reach a broader audience there. These project will supplement its radio outreach, using a shotgun approach to try to reach as many people in as many different ways as possible.
North Korea is not a rich country by any means. As it is, the government tries to jam foreign radio broadcasts, but they only have enough electricity to block the signals for a few hours a day. Think of what would happen if the United States upped its broadcasting efforts while simultaneously flooding the market with creative content. This State Department program can help to create new opportunities for the average North Korean to see for themselves what the outside world is really like.
It is important to remember that the main focus would not be propaganda, but rather entertainment with an underlying goal to provide accurate, trustworthy information – the type of information can create change, particularly in such a closed-off environment.
One smuggler, who works with an NGO to bring movies across the border, said it best: “What I do is what Kim Jong-un fears most.”
Jenna Gibson is the director of communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America, a not-for-profit educational organization partnered with the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, a public policy research institute funded by the Government of the Republic of Korea. Follow Jenna on Twitter at @jennargibson.