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Cuban Activists Say North Korea Fighting Losing Censorship Battle

FILE - People walk past portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea.
FILE - People walk past portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Despite North Korea’s increased efforts to prevent outside information from entering the country, international activists say technology and market forces will eventually overcome state censorship.

North Korea is one of the most isolated nations in the world, where foreign media is prohibited and most people don't have access to the Internet. The repressive state has even executed citizens for distributing media from South Korea, according to the Transitional Justice Working Group that documents human rights abuses in North Korea.

Familiar pattern

Still it is following a pattern similar to other authoritarian regimes that view knowledge as power and have tried to limit and control access to outside information. This according to leaders from Cuban and Myanmar (or Burmese) independent organizations working to evade authoritarian censorship and outside information restrictions in their own countries, who were recently in Seoul to share their experiences and strategies with Korean counterparts.

“I believe that the increasing Internet penetration is going to be inevitable. Eventually the government will need this and needs this for its own development,” said Rafeal Duval with the independent news organization Cubanet.

In Cuba, as in North Korea, growing demand for foreign movies and television dramas, not political news, has made smuggling in outside information an increasingly profitable venture.

Using a variety of USB drives, Micro SD cards and DVD discs, Cubanet distributes through the black market a weekly compilation of video content, audio podcasts and entire webpages known as “El Paquete” for its growing list of customers in Cuba.

Duval said Cuban authorities charged with preventing the influx of foreign media are eventually co-opted by being bought off and often becoming users themselves.

“They’re going to realize the impossibility of a ban because of corruption,” he said.

Another Cuban project called Apretaste targeted the country’s elites, the estimated 25 percent of Cubans who have access to email. Apretaste works as a proxy search engine in which volunteers in places like Florida email results to over 100,000 Cuban inquiries each month.

“Right now we are giving to the people in Cuba something that they really need. We are giving them a window to see you outside the island,” said Salvi Pascual who founded Apretaste.

Prior to democratic reforms that began in Myanmar in 2011, the military government highly censored the Internet. But the porous border with Thailand and the proliferation of satellite TV receivers in the country made it easier for exile opposition groups to penetrate the country’s information blockade.

Emerging black market

The North Korean economy has been steadily growing in recent years despite increased international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang for its continued nuclear and ballistic missiles tests. In the last year, the country’s gross domestic product rose 3.9 percent, driven in part by the exports of coal and other minerals, according to Bank of Korea in Seoul.

However an emerging private market that is tolerated but not sanctioned by the communist state is also driving economic growth. A survey by the Beyond Parallel project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC says most North Koreans now earn 75 percent of their household income from the black market. The Illicit export of North Korean seafood, shoes, cigarettes and cooking oil has given people new purchasing power to bring in outside information and technology.

The number of households with TVs and DVD players in North Korea has grown to the point of being “ubiquitous” said Nat Kretchun, Deputy Director of the Open Technology Fund, a group that promotes internet freedom and is funded by the U.S. government through the Voice of America’s sister organization Radio Free Asia.

And the number of legal North Korean cell phones users has also been growing in recent years. Initially many of these domestic phones were used to transfer unsanctioned media and information files but recent updates to the phone’s operating system installed inhibiting censorship and surveillance software.

“It effectively blocks all unsanctioned files from being used on domestic phones,” said Kretchun.

However for every measure taken by authoritarian governments to block outside information, activists are developing technological counter measures.

That said North Korean defector Kim Seung-chul, who founded North Korea Reform Radio, which broadcasts into the North, expressed frustration that the South Korean government seems to provide less funding to groups working to penetrate the North’s closed information environment than do these Cuban and Myanmar exiles groups.

“The South Korean government, conservatives, veterans, and famous people have a lot of money but they do not use the money for this. They get angry about North Korea’s situation, but they do not act,” said Kim.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.