Recorders against the regime

Friday 31st October, 2014

“No matter how much the regime attempts to seal off the [South] Korean Wave, North Korean people continue to find new ways to penetrate the walls. One of the devices that allow North Koreans to break through the barriers is the recorder,” says Jang Chuljin, a Musan-native who defected through the Tumen River in July 2014.

A “recorder” is what North Koreans collectively call VHS, CD and DVD players. North Korea produces its own DVD players, notably by Hana Electronics, but North Korean recorders are more expensive, supposedly more prone to malfunction, and suitable only for regime-approved DVDs. Chinese recorders, smuggled in from the border, are more popular in the marketplace and subject to stricter surveillance.

North Korea’s border with China is critical for both legal and illegal cultural osmosis. The border is the pivotal line that determines the direction of North Korea’s economy and culture; it is the only way North Koreans can communicate with the outside world. During Kim Jong-il’s regime, surveillance was strengthened to stop the infiltration of capitalist influences from China. Soldiers on active duty guarded the border regions. With the Kim Jong-un regime, the guard has been intensified through strengthened fortification of key regions. At present, border regions are not only patrolled by border security guards, but also by agents from the Ministry of State Security’s civilian surveillance branches, who patrol designated sections.

One of the agents’ greatest causes for concern for is the smuggling of South Korean DVDs into North Korea. Since the mid-’90s, Chinese CDs and recorders have been entering North Korea through the border, unveiling the previously hidden outside world to North Korean citizens. With the dissemination of foreign culture, including South Korean culture, the DPRK regime formed “crackdown groupas” to monitor and prevent the consumption of South Korean soap operas (groupa is the North Korean term for “group”). The regime also released a series of decrees, threatening citizens on the various consequences of viewing illegal content.



“Those who spread foreign lifestyles will be thoroughly destroyed.”
A 2005 decree, by the Publishing House of Chosun (DPRK) Worker’s Party.
Photo source: Asiapress

Away from the eyes of the regime, North Korean citizens must watch South Korean soap operas, or “dramas,” in secret. Due to frequent blackouts, many watch the shows in the late hours of the night, when electricity typically returns (if it does at all). According to Jang Chuljin, the defector whose hometown is near the very borderline causing the North Korean regime a migraine, surveillance agents have devised a new strategy to crack down on the secret activities. Jang says, the regime manipulates the electricity supply for surveillance: agents designate specific regions to supply electricity. Oblivious to this, the citizens watch DVDs on their recorders. When electricity gets cut off, the groupa agents on standby enter individual homes for inspection. Sudden surveillance makes the viewers all the more vulnerable, as it is impossible to take the DVD out of the machines during blackouts, and difficult to hide the machine itself so quickly. As for the agents, they can insert their own batteries into the recorders to inspect the content inside.

“The situation is somewhat different now,” Jang points out. “There is a new recorder from China that has a power storage device. Even in sudden blackouts, people can take out the DVD using the electricity stored inside the DVD player. If the surveillance team suddenly knocks on your door right after the power is out, you will still be able to take out the South Korean DVD and replace it with a legal music CD. Of course, these new recorders are pricier than the previous models. But they guarantee security under any situation. So citizens who can afford to invest more money in purchasing this safer equipment.”

Currently, there is no accurate statistics available on either media consumption or sales in North Korea. It is not possible to know how many people, in which regions, own DVD players and other types of recorders — with or without the power storage device. The frequently cited 2012 InterMedia study states that out of 250 respondents who had escaped North Korea, 46% claimed they had access to DVD players, and 25% had accessed VCD players. Furthermore, 48% replied in 2010 that they had watched foreign DVDs. However, even this study is not statistically representative of the North Korean population. The study admitted that out of the 250 respondents, aged 15 and above, a “disproportionate number” came from provinces bordering China, where foreign information is most easily accessible.

As it is for citizens inside North Korea, the word of mouth continues to remain the main source of information for what is happening in one of the most isolated societies in the world. Nevertheless, the testimonies delivered by the survivors of the regime, who have lived to tell the story, continue to inspire inklings of hope that the petty tales of romance and drama inside DVDs and their recorders are opening up a new world for the people inside North Korea, little by little.



Reporting by Park Yeonmi.
Read in Korean.
Translated and edited by Haeryun Kang.
Featured image: 水水 Wikipedia

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