North Korean Grapevine: The Power of Information


In North Korea, government inspectors disconnect power to entire neighborhoods without any notice. This is done to prevent people from removing any loaded DVDs from their DVD player prior to inspection. If anything from the West, South Korea, or on any subject deemed capitalistic or decadent was found by government inspectors, residents could face hard labor and execution.

Why does the North Korean government put so much effort into cracking down on the viewing of foreign media? Because the Kim Jong-Un regime is afraid of the effect outside information is having on the North Korean people.

He is afraid of his own people, aware and informed.

How does outside information get into the country?

DVDs are just one of many ways outside information is pouring into the hermit kingdom. Through USBs, SD cards, and drones, information trickles into the North and shakes the foundation of an ideology that the Kim regime’s propaganda has worked hard to instill.


Sunny talks about how she would secretly watch South Korean dramas and reflects on the severe punishment she would face if she were caught. [Source: Asian Boss on YouTube]


The influx of foreign media has increased with the advancement of technology, yet one timeless method of information dissemination remains at play: word of mouth. Government officials can raid a home and remove every piece of unauthorized foreign media, but they can’t prevent people from conversing with each other nor remove foreign ideologies from a human mind. Furthermore, information spread through word of mouth can be much more difficult for the government to track compared to the trail of crumbs that file sharing tends to leave. North Korean grapevine, winning.

The regime continues to produce a never-ending stream of propaganda, but the shaky logic of this content is becoming apparent. As more North Koreans become awakened to the truth, the likelihood is high that more and more will feel a sense of estrangement towards their government.
— Thae Yong-ho, former North Korean diplomat

North Koreans working and living abroad have remarkably greater exposure to foreign ideologies and perspectives. Their observations can be disseminated by word of mouth and are likely more effective in changing the hearts and minds of their counterparts in the motherland. As humans we are naturally inclined believe information shared by people we trust.  Foreign ideologies validated by friends and family through the grapevine vindicate ideologies absorbed through unauthorized foreign media. This process of affirmation is critical to the effectiveness of information dissemination efforts into the hermit kingdom.

What will happen if information continues to disseminate into the country?

As the influences of foreign media and word of mouth converge, the hope of change is imminent.

If history is any judge, North Korea’s true change is not likely to come about from the overthrow or dramatic change of heart and decree of one man in power, but will rather more organically spring up from the roots of society — 24 million North Korean people, cognizant of and eager for the liberty they and all humans deserve.
— Seongmin Lee, North Korean defector

The recent protests in Seoul that gathered over one million demonstrators are a clear indicator of what Koreans are capable of when they are informed and roused. The protests were a culmination of information dissemination through technology and word of mouth that spurred a nation to action.

The days of North Korea’s leadership are “numbered,” former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho remarked last week.

And so the countdown begins.

[Cover photo by Raymond Cunningham.]




Keoni Williams is a program assistant at Pacific Forum CSIS; University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa alumnus; and HKC editor-in-chief.