Attempts to circumvent state censorship and surveillance to access news from South Korea

North Korea is one of the most repressive and closed countries in the world. The North Korean government restricts fundamental civil and political liberties, including freedom of expression, assembly and association. It prohibits any organised political opposition, as well as independent media, civil society and trade unions. According to Human Rights Watch, Kim Jong-un has only intensified control over his last six years in power. His repressive measures include stricter restrictions on travel and unauthorised cross-border travel to China as well as harsher punishments for contacting the outside world. The government threatens citizens with the fear of execution, detention and forced labour in the harshest of circumstances.

Expression

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights situation in North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has serious concerns over the ongoing restrictions to freedom of information in his October 2017 report. According to the Special Rapporteur, North Korea maintains a strict system of surveillance on communications within the country and to other countries. At the government's command, a network of neighbourhood watches known as inminban monitors people’s consumption of radio and television programming and report back to the Ministry of State Security. The Special Rapporteur was informed of a recent crackdown on access to audiovisual materials with foreign content. Quintana strongly recommended that the state “abolish restrictions on access to information and communication, both inside the country and with the outside world”. Quintana also told the UN General Assembly that the country is “selectively” engaging with some UN human rights mechanisms, but it remains unwilling to have direct contact with the Special Rapporteur and with the UN human rights office in Seoul.

The North Korean government has also been using information technology to exercise greater control over people and expand its ability to cyber-attack the West. Only trusted elites can access online content with relative freedom, while the majority are restricted to a government-controlled national intranet. North Korea’s desktop operating system “Red Star” is equipped with a tracing viewer that authorities use to identify and trace criminal or subversive activities, which includes sharing unauthorised content from South Korea and other countries. It also takes regular screenshots of what is being displayed in a secretive manner. Smartphones also have a similar trace-viewer feature.

Despite the state control of content and surveillance of online activity, North Koreans have found creative ways to bypass media censorship and access news from the outside world. According to Kim Seung Chul of the Seoul-based shortwave broadcaster, North Korea Reform Radio, many North Koreans are seeking alternative sources of information. Even though there are risks involved in smuggling radios into the country and listening to banned broadcasts, people are assuming that risk by hiding their radios in potato patches or kimchi (fermented vegetables) storage pots. Kim Seung Chul estimates that about 1.5 million people listen to North Korea Reform Radio.