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Information, Entertainment Flow into North Korea

Many assume the people of North Korea are completely cut off from the outside world. But in this report, a VOA reporter who recently visited the Chinese side of the North Korean border takes us behind the scenes to reveal how information from the outside world is pouring into North Korea.

The clerk in this music store in the Chinese city of Dandong on the North Korean border says she has many North Korean customers searching for entertainment from the outside world. She says she can easily distinguish North Koreans because they don't speak Chinese very well. She says they are looking for the latest hits from South Korea.

Since 2002, when Pyongyang unveiled reforms easing government controls on businesses, large numbers of North Koreans cross the border to China regularly, returning with consumer goods, information unavailable at home and music and movies from abroad.

Mobile phones are now commonly seen in North Korea, especially along the border where Chinese telecom providers can support cell phone users. Smuggled South Korean and U.S. movies and TV dramas are available on the black market. The Chinese, who are switching to digital video discs, are dumping their obsolete video cassette players in North Korea.

In the northeast Chinese city of Yanji, Choi, an 18-year-old North Korean girl who fled to China last year, said she used to watch movies and television shows from different countries. She says some of the movies and TV programs she saw were from South Korea, some from China and others from the United States.

She said the videos she watched with her high school friends in secret were eye-opening. She said she felt the North Korean government had been lying to her about the life outside.

Choi says she was told in school that South Koreans live in poverty and that the Americans put them in prison. She says she was told that North Korea was much better off than these countries, but realized this was not true when she watched the foreign videos.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korean studies specialist at the Australian National University, who is currently teaching at Kookmin University in Seoul, says North Koreans are beginning to doubt their government.

"North Korean are used to seeing the government's version of South Koreans' clothes, shoes… But now they are seeing new apartment buildings, beautiful bridges, and sophisticated buildings," he said. " In the eyes and mind of the North Korean, they begin to doubt the commercials and images portrayed by their government."

Foreign videos are available not only along the border with China but even in the capital, Pyongyang, where teenagers can name all the stars of popular South Korean TV dramas.

Ms. Lee, a North Korean merchant from Pyongyang who frequently travels across the border to China, says most North Koreans have seen the American movie "Titanic" on video.

Foreign videos find their way into the country by Chinese and Koreans traveling between the two countries. The tapes are sold in street markets, usually only to known customers. A tape of a Chinese movie costs about 2,000 won, or 90 cents on the black market.

As foreign movies and TV shows become more popular, the North Korean government has strengthened its efforts to stop the flow. Ms. Park, a defector from North Korea, explains. She says special teams of police raid homes without prior warnings. If people miss or come late to their daily ideology class, she says, agents will yell at them "what did you do last night? Did you watch South Korean or foreign movie?"

The punishment for watching unauthorized programs is becoming harsher. Watching pornography is punishable by up to three years in jail and those watching foreign movies or TV programs face up to three months imprisonment.

Sung Min Kim, a North Korean defector who is currently the director of Radio Free North Korea in Seoul, says the influx of information from abroad poses a risk for the Communist regime in Pyongyang.

Mr. Kim says North Koreans can see that the South is a lot more prosperous than they are. He says the shock of reality might not spark a rebellion but it would almost certainly bring confusion and even undermine the national ideology.

Mr. Chang, a former Chinese local official who is now working for a non-profit organization in China, agrees the flow of new information is unlikely to spark a revolt in North Korea. He says only pressure from the outside world can spur the country, and adds a North Korean government official has told him so.

Despite the continuing inflow of outside information into North Korea, migrants from there say most people still believe what the government tells them. They believe they are starving not because of their government's mismanagement, but because of America's hostile policies toward North Korea.

But the defectors, such as Sung Min Kim, say the outside world must continue to spread information to the people in North Korea.

See Part II: Business Along Chinese-North Korean Border Shows Stark Contrast