In 2002’s Die Another Day, James Bond combats a North Korean villain who wants to use a giant mirror in space to concentrate sunlight on the Korean Demilitarized Zone and burn a path that would allow North Korean troops to invade South Korea and unite the peninsula.
Journalists need to play the role of 007 to get information about North Korea, as it is one of the most strictly controlled media environments in the world. Although the constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, the only real freedom of speech granted to North Koreans is that which praises the state and its leaders. In 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked North Korea as the most censored nation in the world. Reporters Without Borders consistently ranks the country second to last or last in its press freedom index. Foreign reporters have a difficult time getting press visas for any reason other than for cultural or sporting events or during the visits of foreign leaders, and those who receive visas are severely restricted, as the watchful eyes of the authorities are a constant presence.
The Korean Central News Agency is the sole source of information in the country, providing a handful of newspapers with state-manufactured propaganda. All journalists belong to the Workers Party of Korea and are taught to praise the leader and study his works. For some insight into “guidance” for North Korean journalists, the Columbia Journalism Review published a great post on Kim Jong-il’s book “The Great Teacher of Journalists.” The post includes “selected journalism counsel from Kim Jong-il.”
Reporters Without Borders also categorizes North Korea as “An Enemy of the Internet.” The country did not open its internet until 2010 and very few people have access to it—mainly high level party officials and foreign diplomats. The state took its propaganda machine to YouTube and Twitter in that year, and to date the official state Twitter account has more than 10,000 followers. Most of the population is restricted to using a state-run intranet, and the list of accessible websites is slim.
This is the information age, however, and with the aid of technology information transcends borders. Exile radio stations such as Free North Korea Radio, Radio Free Chosun, Open Radio North Korea, and North Korea Reform Radio provide a path to reality that is usually blocked by state propaganda and censorship. Information also crosses from the Chinese border in the form of USB drives and DVDs.
With the death of the man whose people referred to as Dear Leader, a man Reporters Without Borders called a “press freedom predator,” what happens next is uncertain. A good resource to keep an eye on is the United States Institute for Peace’s Korea Working Group. Early indications show that Kim Jong-un is not as powerful as his father and that he will share power with the military.
One thing is certain: in the short-term, North Korea will remain the closed society it has been for decades. Media freedom will continue to be elusive for now, but organizations such as Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists will keep a close eye on the media situation and report any developments that may occur in the post-Kim Jong-il era.
Further resources on North Korea
Frontiers of Censorship – Reporters Without Borders (October 2011)
North Korea on the Cusp of Digital Transformation – The Nautilus Institute (October 2011)
2011 Map of Press Freedom – Freedom House
World Report 2011 – Human Rights Watch
Rimjin-gang – an independent publication written directly by North Korean journalists inside North Korea and produced in Japan.
Special Report: North Korea – The Browser
Korea Report – News, Commentaries and Perspectives on Korean Affairs, History and Policy Issues
Media, Blogs, Books, Film – list of links from CRS