Around the world, authoritarian regimes have tried to keep their citizens from hearing news of the protests raging throughout the Middle East and in their own countries. Some have tried shutting down cellphone and Internet service, but that has only sparked new flames of anger and discontent.
Even the Chinese government, which has unleashed the most sophisticated Internet blocking system in the world, can’t contain all the information and chatter on countless websites, social networks and blogs.
As far back as 2006, when I was in Beijing on assignment for Current TV, people there were surreptitiously bypassing what’s become known as the great firewall of China. Using my laptop in my hotel room, I first tried unsuccessfully to access various banned sites dedicated to human rights issues. But after I installed an unauthorized piece of software called Ultrareach, used by many Chinese to get around government blocks, I was immediately able to open the forbidden websites.
But there is one country that has actually managed to keep the vast majority of its population in the dark: North Korea. Unlike its neighbor China, which has more than 450 million Internet users, the Internet in North Korea is banned for the average citizen. There’s no need for the government to block threatening websites, because most North Koreans have never used a computer, let alone understand what a URL is.
In March 2009, while working on a story along the China-North Korean border, I was taken captive by North Korean soldiers and held inside that isolated country for nearly five months. Though I was confined to a room with two guards watching over me at all times, I was able to get an interesting glimpse of the country’s propaganda machine.
In the guards’ area, a television would blare black-and-white films depicting evil South Korean and American soldiers being beaten back by the North’s heroic forces. Elaborate rallies were broadcast with people shouting nationalistic slogans as soldiers marched in unison. And there was frequent coverage of the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, presiding over the opening of factories or schools.
To this day, I can conjure up the tune to North Korea’s national anthem, because every evening at 5, when television broadcasts began airing, I was subjected to the sounds of the men’s military choir patriotically belting out the lyrics of the communist revolutionary anthem. Every Sunday night, a segment dedicated to international news would feature negative stories about the United States or natural disasters in other countries. It seemed that one responsibility of the government censors was to make the rest of the world appear worse off than North Korea.
Fortunately, I was allowed to receive letters from family and friends, which kept me somewhat connected to what was happening in the outside world. My husband, Iain, scanned pages and photos from newspapers and magazines. In excerpts he sent from the Economist, I learned that hundreds of thousands of Iranians had taken to the streets of Tehran in June 2009 to protest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection.
On North Korean television, the picture of events taking place in Iran was very different. North Koreans saw only images of jubilant Iranians celebrating Ahmadinejad’s victory. I tried to tell my guard that there was another reality from the one being presented on TV. In broken English, she said she didn’t understand. It truly seemed that she couldn’t comprehend the idea of a people rising up against their leadership and demanding change.
Despite having a near-total lockdown on information that gets transmitted to its population, Kim’s totalitarian regime has to be finding it harder and harder to keep the world at bay. North Korea shares borders with two of the most wired countries in the world, and information is seeping in from both sides.
A black market exists in the country, from which North Koreans purchase DVDs of Chinese dramas and pornography. News about the outside world also enters the North via an underground network that allows people to call relatives in China or South Korea using contraband cellphones.
Late last month, the South Korean military began dropping leaflets in North Korea about the democracy protests in Egypt, and activists have vowed to continue the propaganda campaign despite the North’s threats of military retaliation.
But I question whether the North Korean people would even know what to do with knowledge of protests in the Arab world. Theirs is one of the most isolated societies on the planet, and both absolute reverence for and total fear of Kim run deep. Although there have been recent reports of small protests in towns close to the Chinese border, with groups demanding food and electricity, organization on a mass scale seems unlikely.
When I think about the reaction of an impoverished North Korean farmer getting a strange leaflet dropped by a balloon in the sky telling him wild tales of an insurrection in a far-off land, I’m reminded of my guard who was dumbfounded by the idea of freedom. It’s a concept that the majority of North Koreans are likely to find impossible to understand.
Laura Ling, host of the documentary series E! Investigates. She is the coauthor of Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home.