DEBORAH AMOS, host:
The conventional wisdom has it that the people of North Korea are trapped in complete isolation. Now, there's a good deal of evidence that North Koreans are far more aware of the outside world.
NPR's Mike Shuster has our story from Seoul.
MIKE SHUSTER: It is rare for an American to travel to North Korea, and even more unusual for an American to spend much time there. Stephen Linton has done both.
Dr. STEPHEN LINTON (Eugene Bell Foundation): In general, I think North Koreans are clearly growing in their awareness of the rest of the world. I think there's no question about that.
SHUSTER: Linton has been going to North Korea for many years. He's engaged in a campaign to combat tuberculosis there. And he says North Koreans are soaking up information about the rest of the world.
Dr. LINTON: One of the most underrated realities about North Korea is its very dynamic relationship with China, and the amount of information that flows across that border - students, business people; it's a continuous stream of traffic.
SHUSTER: With that traffic comes thousands of DVDs, CDs, cellular telephones, used computers, videotapes - much of it from China and South Korea.
Kim Heung Kwang came to South Korea from the North six years ago, and he created a group called North Korea Intellectual Solidarity. He has his own network of people in both Koreas. Kim says it's the market-oriented traders and smugglers in the provinces of China bordering on North Korea that are filling the information gap.
Mr. KIM HEUNG KWANG (North Korea Intellectual Solidarity): (Through translator) A lot of Korean people in China, they make a living by setting satellite TVs at their homes to receive South Korean media, and burn it into CDs and DVDs and sell them to North Korean people to make money - not for propaganda purpose or nothing, anything like that.
SHUSTER: These media are so prevalent inside North Korea now that knowledge about South Korea has become commonplace, says Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University in Seoul. Yoo regularly talks to students and refugees from North Korea.
Professor YOO HO-YEOL (Korea University): They are telling us that those people living along the border area, all of them know well about South Korean society or daily life.
SHUSTER: Groups likes North Korea Intellectual Solidarity have also managed to send cell phones across the Chinese border and now, there are thousands of people who can call to South Korea via cell phone systems in China to provide news of developments inside North Korea. And they can receive text messages, photos and music via cell phones.
It was through channels like these that news leaked out of North Korea late last year about the disastrous currency reform the government had imposed, and widespread resistance to it.
It is still not risk-free to possess these materials. But whereas years ago, possessing a videotape from South Korea might bring a three-year prison or labor camp sentence, now, says Kim Heung Kwang, the materials are so common that local authorities appear to understand they've already lost this battle.
Mr. KWANG: (Through translator) The efforts are ongoing to inspect and collect everything that they can find. But because demand is so big and the activities are undergoing in black markets, the government is feeling that it's fundamentally impossible to eliminate all sources. So I feel that they are just going through the motion now.
SHUSTER: And finally, there is word of mouth. Humanitarian workers from South Korea who have brought medicine or food to North Korea say simple conversation can be transformative.
Hwang Jae-sung has done agricultural work in North Korea for an aid group from the South called Korean Sharing Movement.
Mr. HWANG JAE-SUNG (Korean Sharing Movement): They saw like, how - what we were and like, what we do and what we brought. And then they go back to house and they just tell their wives and children and - so on. The word spreads like, you know, a thousand miles.
SHUSTER: It is something of an irony, then, that the policies of the United States can get in the way of the freer flow of information. Some economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. have created problems for the North Korea Intellectual Solidarity group. It's been sending USB drives to North Korea, which carry books, news articles, music, teaching materials and computer games.
But North Koreans need more computers to use them, says the group's director, Kim Heung Kwang.
Mr. KWANG: (Through translator) The prerequisite for this program is enough number of computers in North Korea. But there are several regulations in place blocking our efforts. So I think that the United States needs to change its regulations on these matters.
SHUSTER: The number of used computers from South Korea and Japan is enormous. But sanctions make it more difficult to get even these computers, and more information, into North Korea.
Mike Shuster, NPR News, Seoul.