Illegal File-Sharing Opens North Korea to World

Hallyu Wave K-Pop
Made in South Korea, popular in North Korea. The K-Pop group Girls' Generation (SNSD). (Image credit: SM Entertainment)

North Korea's dictatorship has blocked its people from learning about the outside world for more than 60 years. But the wall of propaganda has begun to crack as North Koreans use real-life social networks to illegally share South Korean TV dramas and pop music on everything from DVDs to USB sticks.

Without open Internet access, North Koreans share South Korean dramas or "K-Pop" songs on physical devices with family, friends or trusted acquaintances, according to a U.S. report issued on May 9. Such illegal file-sharing has had a huge impact beyond entertainment — North Korean defectors say it has forced the North Korean regime to abandon some propaganda claims about the outside world.

"I was told when I was young that South Koreans are very poor, but the South Korean dramas proved that just isn't the case," according to a 31-year-old male defector.

The InterMedia report commissioned by the U.S. State Department looked at surveys of hundreds of North Korean defectors who fled to South Korea through China. It found that North Koreans — especially the elite — often get the help of Chinese merchants to smuggle in South Korean TV dramas on DVDs, or USBs and MP3 players filled with K-Pop music. Some people in North Korea's border provinces illegally access foreign TV channels or radio broadcasts.

Talk on the social network

Many North Koreans leverage the power of their real-life social networks to watch South Korean dramas. A majority of defectors watched the TV dramas with family or trusted friends, rather than alone. Most defectors also reported borrowing or buying the South Korean DVDs from family or friends, rather than buying a DVD on the black market.

The South Korean TV shows about family dramas or love triangles have indirectly shown North Koreans how poor their own lives look by comparison (democratic South Korea ranks as the 15th largest economy in the world). The North Korean government has been forced to give up telling its citizens that South Korea is economically worse off than North Korea, according to the report. [How Korean Digital Library May Pave Way for US Version]

North Korea looks dark by night compared to brightly-lit South Korea on the Korean peninsula (between China on the left and Japan on the right). (Image credit: C. Mayhew & R. Simmon (NASA/GSFC), NOAA/NGDC, DMSP Digital Archive)

North Koreans can legally own TVs, DVD players, radios, mp3 players and USB sticks, and so it's difficult for the North Korean government to control how such technologies are used. A small number of North Koreans also use illegal Chinese cellphones capable of calling outside North Korea — a way of confirming what they see in the TV dramas."Everyone thinks highly of South Korea," according to a 57-year-old male defector.

"They know that China is well off, but that South Korea is even more developed. I became sure of this after asking my relatives and cousins in China whether or not what I had seen and heard in South Korean dramas were true; they said it was."

Illegal music-sharing runs wild

Young North Koreans have also begun following South Korean K-Pop music trends by using legally owned MP3 players — devices meant for listening to language or school lessons. Most defectors who had used an MP3 player said they used it to listen to K-Pop songs. Some reported buying MP3 players from Chinese merchants that were preloaded with such South Korean music.

"About 70-80 percent of people that have MP3/4 players are young people," according to a 44-year-old male defector. "When you do a crackdown of MP3/4 players among high school and university students, you see that 100 percent of them have South Korean music."

Such illegal file-sharing of South Korean TV shows or pop music carries harsh penalties under North Korean law — punishments that far exceed anything given out by Western courts for illegal online file-sharing. But even the repressive North Korean government has been unable to clamp down on its people's desire for outside entertainment and news.

Fewer North Koreans report on neighbors for such illegal activities than ever before, according to the report. Even North Korean officials take bribes to turn a blind eye or use illegal media content themselves.

"No matter how many people die, the sensational popularity doesn't die," said a 25-year-old male defector. "That is the power of culture."

This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. You can follow InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.