The Information Debate Continued



Recently, I reviewed the hopeful work of Jieun Baek on the information revolution in North Korea. Several short items over the last two weeks show the complexity of the issue and the cat-and-mouse nature of the information wars. 

On the positive side, North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho is now talking, and saying things that come straight out of Ms. Baek’s playbook. Thae Yong Ho claims that a greater appreciation of democracy was part of the reason for his defection and that "North Korea will collapse on its own when enough external information introduced through drones or USBs reveals the truth of the Kim regime to the residents." Not surprisingly, he confirms that diplomats abroad rely heavily on foreign and particularly South Korean news on the North, claiming that he checked Yonhap’s North Korea section on his cellphone daily.

CSIS’s Beyond Parallel project recently released a report (NK Witness coverage here) on surveys conducted inside North Korea on foreign media access. The Beyond Parallel results align with previous refugee surveys that show high rates of North Korean foreign media access: 92 percent consume foreign media once a month; 58 percent daily; and 83 percent said they found outside goods and information to have a greater impact on their lives than decisions by the DPRK government.

Yet Thae also noted that the information membrane might not be as porous at high levels as is often assumed. "Even a vice head of the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Workers' Party of Korea cannot enter a (foreign ministry) room where CNN is being played although a common member of the foreign ministry is given access to it," Thae said. "The OGD vice head may have complete sway over me, but he is only allowed government-filtered information, and nothing else." More and more polling and social science research is showing how vulnerable even relatively-educated publics are to confirmation bias; the Washington Post provides some stunning examples. Nationalist and pro-regime instincts no doubt color elite and mass views of the world in North Korea as well. Put differently, we simply don’t know that much about the conditions under which citizens in authoritarian settings might be open to subversive information and cognitive change.

Another contrarian theme that Baek acknowledges in her book is the way in which information technology could have what might be called “normalizing” effects, and particularly among the elite. One striking example in a great scoop for NKNews: a new firm called Yeonpung Commercial Information Tech Company launched an online shopping platform in 2016 called Manmulsang that may have received as many as 3 million visits to date. Launched to support business ventures by the so-called so-donju or smaller entrepreneurs, the site apparently has over 4500 products. Think this through: although many questions remain about the site, it implies that businesses are being allowed to go online, assumes adequate demand at the other end by customers—either wholesale or retail—with similar online access, and presumably have payment functions. Subversive of the regime or fully consistent with the byungjin line? I vote for the latter.    

Another recent story of interest has to do with the technology of control. Three years ago, a number of news outlets picked up on the story that the Kim Jong Un regime was stepping up imports of CCTV equipment for both border and internal control (for example, The Atlantic). DailyNK reports that in the wake of the floods, new cameras are being installed along routes known for defections, military desertions and smuggling. The piece notes that they may not be effective because of regular power outages, and of course those watching them need to be immune from bribery as well.

But the main point is that not all technology is benign, as the Chinese firewall has proven; strategies for getting people and information in and out will be met with efforts to use technologies for purposes not only of control but material cooptation as well. Precisely for that reason, the information game is a long one worth playing. For those seeking a concise summary of the issue, Olivia Onos at Heritage obliges.

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