Fighting The State, Without The Web: North Korea’s Sneakernet Insurgency

By May 29, 2012

Image: Shinsuke Ikegame CC BY 2.0

The totalitarian state of North Korea is being transformed by the digital age, with more citizens taking personal risks to access information not sanctioned by the regime. But while technology is being used to disseminate banned media, according to a new report, dissidents have had to devise elaborate ways to do so without the use of the Internet, which is available only to a small number of elites.

According to research by consulting group Intermedia, North Koreans today have unprecedented access to foreign media – from DVDs smuggled across the border, to USB drives used to share banned content, to tuning in to foreign radio and television signals. Those small-scale revolutionary acts are giving North Koreans information about the outside world, and are also challenging the culture of censorship in the nation.

“While the letter of the law has actually become stricter with regard to accessing outside information, North Koreans are increasingly finding ways to negotiate around these restrictions and obtain outside information,” reads an Intermedia report. “The act of accessing information contributes to the normalization of prohibited behaviors in North Korea.”

Researchers drew on interviews and surveys with North Korean travelers, refugees, defectors and expert input. They acknowledged, though, that information gleaned from expatriates likely does not reflect the population of North Korea statistically.

The North Korean government, which has fostered an intricate cult of personality around three generations of the Kim family, has long sought to prevent its citizens from gaining accurate information about the outside world – perhaps in fear of what would happen if the citizenry were aware the nation has among the worst human rights records in the modern world.

Central to the report is how dissidents have coped with the lack of the Internet, which has increasingly fueled demonstrations against other global dictatorships. While technology has provided novel tools for the storage and transmission of data in North Korea, the wide lack of web or mobile connectivity means that handoffs of banned content are happening physically – copied between handheld drives, or hidden on handheld MP3 players. And with an unreliable, state-controlled media, word of mouth is still most North Koreans’ most important source of information, according to the report.

“USB [drive] users noted their convenience not just because of their compactness, but because it was possible to delete sensitive materials without leaving a trace,” the researchers wrote. “A few respondents used MP3 players to learn foreign languages such as English and Chinese, and it was evident that some parents purchased new technologies for their children to aid in their studies. However, interviews revealed the devices were often used to watch or listen to South Korean dramas and music as well. ”

The influx of South Korean media is politically significant, because it belies state propaganda that conditions in the neighboring country are poor.

Images: Shinsuke Ikegame CC BY 2.0, Clive Darr CC BY SA 2.0 Cover Image courtesy of: