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North Korea cracks down on knowledge smugglers

Tim Sullivan (via SMH) | Jan. 2, 2013
The warning came from Kim Jong-un, the North Korean ruler who sees his isolated nation, just across the border from this busy Chinese trading town, as under siege. The attack, he said, must be stopped.

"Let me worry about how to do it," laughed one smuggler, asked how he gets his goods into North Korea. He is a friendly man, dressed business-casual in black corduroys and a black sweater.

Asked what he could get across the border, he made clear that business was thriving. Televisions, including ones able to pick up foreign stations? No problem. DVD players? Sure. Chinese movies? Yes.

But when asked about South Korean DVDs, the man shifted uncomfortably in his chair. His partner spoke up. No South Korean items - not DVDs, thumb drives, cosmetics or food.

"Nothing," the partner said firmly.

Soap operas, at first, might not seem like conduits of underground information. But they are threats nonetheless, offering windows into worlds that North Koreans both lack and desire.

North Korean viewers living in tiny two-room homes and struggling to feed their families can see houses with bedrooms just for children, and dinners with endless food. They see everyday people casually complaining about policemen and politicians. Scenes like that are provocative in a country where defectors say criticising the ruling family can send entire families to sprawling prison camps, and where bicycles are considered luxury items for many.

Plenty of other smugglers are willing to carry what the man in Hunchun is not.

Millions of foreign TV and movie recordings are thought to be floating around North Korea, though they are most easily available in cities near the Chinese border. With the crackdown, analysts say smugglers appear to have shifted to new techniques, at least for videos: carrying recordings on tiny thumb drives, and then transferring the programs to DVDs inside North Korea.

Because once information starts to flow, information cannot be turned off like a spigot. At most it can be slowed.

In many ways, Kim is facing an authoritarian contradiction.

North Korea has been trying - albeit haltingly and slowly - to revitalise its barely functioning economy and crack open a door to the outside. Foreign tourists are now commonplace in Pyongyang, though on tightly controlled trips, and Kim has told his people that they should never go hungry again. Western movies occasionally are shown on state television. North Korean officials now actively court foreign investors.

As a result, North Korea has found itself flirting with modernity - more than a million of the 24 million North Koreans now have mobile phones, for instance, though they can only place and receive calls domestically - while trying desperately to keep a tight grip on the public.


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