Watching Foreign Movies Is Illegal In North Korea, But Some Do It Anyway "The idea that North Korea is an information black hole is simply not true anymore," says reporter James Pearson. There's a brisk black-market trade in illicit media on USB sticks and micro SD cards.
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Watching Foreign Movies Is Illegal In North Korea, But Some Do It Anyway

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Watching Foreign Movies Is Illegal In North Korea, But Some Do It Anyway

Watching Foreign Movies Is Illegal In North Korea, But Some Do It Anyway

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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When North Korea grabs the headlines, it's often because of something like this week's surprise missile test. Rarely do we hear about the lives of ordinary North Koreans.


We know the regime has walled itself off from the rest of the world, but our co-host David Greene learned that some North Koreans aren't as isolated as we might think.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: When Yeonmi Park was a young girl, she went to her uncle's house to watch a movie. This was not the state-run broadcast she was used to, praising the dear leader. No, this movie was illegal.

YEONMI PARK: What we do is we cover windows with blankets, And then we turn the volume really, really down so you have to be right next to TV.

GREENE: She was watching a pirated copy of "Titanic."

PARK: When I saw that movie first time, I was very confused. I never heard my father telling mother that he loved her. And my mother never told me she loved me, either. To me, like, love were the only words allowed to express to Dear Leader. So it was just very odd concept to me. How come a man can die for woman?

GREENE: By the time Yeonmi escaped North Korea in 2007, she'd also seen James Bond. She had seen South Korean dramas. She even watched American wrestling matches.

PARK: Yes. For a couple of hours, you just forget about how life so hard. I was dreaming about a different planet.

GREENE: Now, Yeonmi was getting all of this stuff through this network of smugglers and traders, a really active black market in her city. This is not the North Korea we know. We see the military parades. We see the goose-stepping soldiers, the tanks. We see the latest missile test. We see a hermit kingdom in isolation. But even in today's society, even the most repressive regime can't keep everything out.

JAMES PEARSON: The idea that North Korea is an information black hole is just simply not true anymore.

GREENE: That's James Pearson. He reports for Reuters in South Korea. And he also co-authored the book "North Korea Confidential." He says more and more North Koreans are getting their hands on illicit media. And don't think for a minute a movie like "Titanic" doesn't worry the North Korean regime. Just seeing visible tension, complicated emotions can make North Koreans feel deprived.

PEARSON: Things like that can start to change people's thinking. And when you talk to defectors who've left the country, many of them say, yeah, you know, I was looking at foreign media that started to help me question what it is that I hear from the government. You know, perhaps things are better off overseas, even in South Korea and even across the border in China.

GREENE: All right, so how is this forbidden content slipping into such a closed-off society? Well, let's step back for a minute to the mid-1990s. It looked like North Korea was going to collapse. There was devastating famine. The government failed to feed its people.


TREVOR ROWE, BYLINE: Floods in North Korea left half a million people destitute and without food.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: International relief agencies say 2 million children are at risk of starving to death.

GREENE: Now, here's the crazy thing. Capitalism helped save North Korea. These makeshift stands started popping up around the country selling goods, most importantly food.

PEARSON: During the famine, people said that the ones who turned to capitalism and trading were the ones that survived. And that North Korea, that real economy has essentially been the real economy ever since.

GREENE: Yet Pearson says this black market has grown because government officials are benefiting. State salaries are almost nothing, and so border guards can be easily bribed. Goods flow in from China. And these days, it's way more than just food.

What exactly is coming in?

PEARSON: Everything. There's a saying in North Korea that you can find anything but a cat's horn, meaning that if it exists, you can probably find it in the markets.


PEARSON: In a way, it's kind of North Korea's biggest open secret.

GREENE: And this young man was in on it.

CHARLES: Hi, David.

GREENE: Thank you for doing this with us.

CHARLES: Oh, no problem.

GREENE: Charles. He defected from North Korea when he was 17 years old. He swam across the Tumen River to China. And he now lives in the U.S. We are withholding his last name to protect the family he left behind. In North Korea's black market, Charles's role was peddling bootleg DVDs.

And how were you getting copies of these movies from the outside?

CHARLES: So one of my friend's father was a police officer.

GREENE: His friend's dad would confiscate foreign media, but then he'd keep those DVDs for himself. Charles would then secretly copy those confiscated DVDs and put them right back on the black market where they came from. How would you hide these DVDs when you were selling them?

CHARLES: Under the clothes and some of them in my jackets, inside of the pocket in the jackets.

GREENE: Everywhere?

CHARLES: Everywhere, yes.

GREENE: And if you got caught, you could be killed.

CHARLES: Yeah. It's very dangerous.

GREENE: They're risking their life because they are so desperate for content. James Pearson from Reuters says North Koreans are just getting more creative. They're using USB sticks and SD cards now instead of DVDs.

PEARSON: That's been a really popular way to spread information. You can hide them between pages of a book. You can swallow them even if you're caught with them.

GREENE: The demand right now is actually so high that some Chinese manufacturers have been creating special devices just for the North Korean market. One of them is called a Notel. It's this portable DVD player that has a USB input. Basically, it lets you put in two things at once - the thing you really want to watch and also the state-approved propaganda disk.

PEARSON: You can plug your USB stick full of illicit media in. You can open the DVD drive and put in some official state media like Kim Jong Il's greatest hits. And should there be a knock on the door from the bowibu, which is the kind of Gestapo, Stasi-esque institution in North Korea, you can just pull out the USB stick and then open the DVD drive and say look, I was watching this.

GREENE: Now, we can't be naive and think that all this has taught us a ton about North Korea. The reality is Kim Jong Un's regime is still in control. Just think of Charles, the defector we spoke to. He gamed the regime. He watched tons of foreign media, but he defected knowing he might never see his brother again.

Do you think you'll be able to talk to him at some point again soon?

CHARLES: I don't think so.

GREENE: That must be hard.

CHARLES: Yeah. Living here alone is kind of tough. And I still miss my brothers and my families. But, you know, I still strongly believe that they're going to open one day, you know. And I strongly believe, also, somebody is going to stand up and they're going to say something.

MARTIN: That was our co-host David Greene reporting.

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