Lee Seok-young can still remember the first tune he heard crouched beneath the blankets late one night, twisting the dial of his radio until he caught a station across the border. Crackling through, at the lowest volume, was the South Korean love song Ten Thousand Roses.
For Lee, then 18, it was a curious, tantalizing echo from another world.
“All the songs I had heard were ideological. This was about the lives of people,” he said.
North Korea has the world’s least free media, according to Freedom House and Reporters without Borders. TVs and radios are fixed to receive only state broadcasts, then sealed. Officials mount overnight raids to find and punish those who tamper with their sets, and those caught consuming foreign media are likely to face forced labor. Very few people have Internet access.
However, since the early 1990s, “the near complete information blockade the government managed to maintain has eroded,” a report on North Korean media consumption by InterMedia said last year.
Those near the Chinese or South Korean border surreptitiously tune in to foreign radio and TV broadcasts. Families watch imported dramas on illicit DVDs or USB sticks. Others contact friends and relatives working outside the North via smuggled Chinese mobile phones, which work in border areas.
“Foreign radio is essentially the only real-time source of sensitive outside news and information available in North Korea and even entertainment media, such as South Korean DVDs, can offer North Koreans a fascinating glimpse of life in the South and a much-needed escape from their own hardships,” said Nathaniel Kretchun, author of the InterMedia study.
Two decades after he first tuned in, Lee is at the other end of the broadcasts, living in Seoul and working as director of Free North Korea Radio. It is one of several media organizations run on a shoestring by defectors, sympathetic South Koreans and other volunteers who transmit news into the North and extract information from the secretive country — with Web sites such as the DailyNK winkling out details that foreign media, such as the BBC’s controversial recent Panorama program, struggle to obtain.
Their influence is multiplied by word of mouth. In his day, Lee said, you would only talk about such things with your siblings. Even husbands and wives might fear sharing secrets, another defector said, in case they later divorced.
However, those who have left more recently, and North Koreans working in China, say people now discuss what they have heard with good friends or even consume foreign media together. One man interviewed by InterMedia protected himself by watching illicit DVDs with off-duty security officials.
Listening to foreign radio is liable to particularly heavy punishment because it is often directly political. It is also less immediately appealing than South Korean soap operas, lacking their glossy production values and exciting storylines. And North Koreans, weary of propaganda, often warm to such shows precisely because they are not aimed at them.
However, even entertainment offers clues that the outside world is not the way it has been portrayed; and some, like Lee, are drawn to search for more sensitive material.
By listening to music stations, “I learned things were not as I had been taught ... South Korea seemed less of an enemy, more like the same people — and like a very free country,” he said.