Foreign books, broadcasts, CDs and DVDs are forbidden in North Korea, and ordinary citizens caught with any of this material face severe penalties. Approved TVs and radios are set to receive only official channels, and the country’s 3 million computers are restricted to the elite. There is effectively no internet and the closed intranet is tightly monitored.
But there is an insatiable demand in the country for South Korea’s TV dramas, and these unlikely invaders appear to be the thin end of a wedge that is bringing a glimpse of the outside world into North Korea. The regime works hard to crack down on this, and the bulk of ordinary TVs, DVD players and CDs, coupled with unreliable electricity supplies, make it risky for North Koreans to view forbidden material.
As a result, custom-made TVs are in great demand and are becoming increasingly available. These devices include two key features that help North Korean citizens to overcome some of the restrictions imposed by the regime.
The first of these features is to do with the electricity supply. In most countries, it’s normal to have TVs that use 220 or 110v. But in North Korea, thanks to poor power levels and an intermittent supply, TV screens may show distorted images, shut down unexpectedly or fail to work at all. Enterprising Chinese companies have responded to this by manufacturing and exporting to North Korea TVs specially adapted to be viewed with a power supply as low as 15v.
One company has gone further, marketing a TV that can be run off a 12v emergency battery. Kim Ji-hyun, who escaped North Korea in 2011, testified that “People even watch illegal South Korean dramas on TVs from China that use 12v. Since the TV runs on a battery, it’s more stable than ordinary household appliances running off the mains, and there’s less risk of getting caught by a surveillance team.”
The second feature is miniaturization. Ms Kim said that in order not to be caught by surveillance officers, people prefer small, portable TVs that are easy to hide. She said that the latest must-have item is a miniature TV with a USB socket.
Kim Yoon-suk, who escaped North Korea six months ago, said, “Recently, people have begun trading USBs loaded with episodes of South Korean TV dramas. That’s because USB sticks are easier to hide than CDs. When I watch dramas on a miniature TV with an attached USB stick, I feel more relaxed. Even if the security officer makes a surprise visit, I can just take out the USB and say that I have not been watching anything illegal.”
Mr Kim continued, “When I was in North Korea, there were times that I watched South Korean dramas on a TV that was only a little bigger than the GPS navigation screens you find in cars in other countries.” He added, “Since I was trading with the Chinese, I could at least get such a small TV and USB a little more easily than other people could.”
Miniaturization has also affected the supply of tiny USB sticks with hugely increased memory capacity.
However, North Korean exiles report that most North Korean families still use ordinary TVs connected to DVD players, and have to wait for the electricity to come on before they can watch anything. Added to the inconvenience of this, there is a real danger: if security officers cut off the supply before making a raid, or if there’s a power cut, an illegal and incriminating DVD can remain trapped in the machine, and the hapless viewer will face severe consequences.
Oh Hyun-ji, who escaped North Korea in 2010, said, “People who use 12v TVs or small TVs are, as the South Koreans say, ‘early adopters’.”
Ms Oh continued: “Custom-made TVs in North Korea exist mainly to evade government surveillance and to view illegal South Korean dramas. That’s why small TVs from China are becoming more and more popular.”
South Korea has recently unveiled a monster 100-inch TV to satisfy the demand of consumers worldwide for increasingly larger screens. In contrast, the repressive control of the North Korean regime fuels a powerful demand for progressively smaller TVs and greater ingenuity in finding ways to bypass the regime’s information blockade.