North Koreans embrace truth over consequences

The regime’s sudden military prowess may reflect a need to keep the loyalty of a people hungry for truthful news and foreign entertainment.

Children learn to read sheet music at a kindergarten in Pyongyang, North Korea, Oct. 17.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been busy this year flexing his military muscles. His reclusive country has held an unprecedented number of weapons tests, even sending a ballistic missile over Japan. It appears ready to conduct a seventh underground nuclear bomb test, the first in five years.

Why now? One reason may be that the third leader of the Kim dynasty needs to shore up loyalty by bedazzling his people. The economy is in shambles, but most of all, too many North Koreans are bypassing state propaganda to learn the truth about the outside world.

More people are watching foreign news and cultural shows on smuggled computer devices such as micro SD cards, according to a rare survey conducted clandestinely from June to August by the South Korea-based Unification Media Group (UMG).

The survey found 79% of North Koreans watch foreign videos at least once a month. The most popular entertainment is South Korean dramas, such as “Squid Games” and “Crash Landing on You,” along with K-pop music.

More tellingly, 88% of those surveyed had heard or experienced punishment for breaking a harsh 2020 law aimed at curbing foreign information or media content.

The survey reveals a hunger for truthful information despite a fear of severe punishment. The regime seemed particularly alarmed this year when it found a group of soldiers singing “like South Koreans” in a military talent show, even doing comedy stand-ups. It is also trying to stop popular usage of a South Korean slang term from “Crash Landing on You” that sarcastically means “You think you’re the general or something?” Mr. Kim is often referred to as the general.

To ensure conformity in ideology and a near-worship of the Kim family, the regime tightly controls the number and types of radios, TVs, and computers. Still, a black market across the border with China has brought in illegal devices, such as thumb drives, loaded with illegal content. “Foreign countries give you fresh, unpolished news, but all of our newspapers and broadcasts are fabrications and fake,” one North Korean woman told Daily NK news, an arm of UMG.

The increase in flow of information could lead North Koreans to assume a liberty of conscience leading to a liberty from fear. Even in South Korea, the government began moves this year to end a 1948 legal prohibition on North Korean media. “Removing that restriction ... would be another step toward moving on from the past, as well as joining the United States and other countries in championing freedom, liberty, and access to information,” Jean Lee, a fellow at the Wilson Center, told The Peninsula publication.

An embrace of honest and open communication could be shaping the Korean Peninsula even more than the embrace of more advanced weaponry.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to North Koreans embrace truth over consequences
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today