Freedom of the Press
North Korea remained the most repressive media environment in the world in 2011. The one-party regime owns all media, attempts to regulate all communication, and rigorously limits the ability of the North Korean people to access information. Although the constitution theoretically guarantees freedom of speech, constitutional provisions calling for adherence to a “collective spirit” restrict in practice all reporting that is not sanctioned by the government. All journalists are members of the ruling party, and all media outlets serve as mouthpieces for the regime. Since the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in December 2011, the media have focused their attention on consolidating national unity around his successor and youngest son, Kim Jong-un.
Under the penal code, listening to unauthorized foreign broadcasts and possessing dissident publications are considered “crimes against the state” that carry serious punishments, including hard labor, prison sentences, and the death penalty. Even though North Koreans have been arrested for possessing or watching television programs acquired on the black market, there has been an increase in the flow of news and information into North Korea thanks to foreign radio stations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that send multimedia content across the border. Since 2009, Reporters Without Borders has been supporting Seoul-based radio stations such as Free North Korea Radio, Radio Free Chosun, and Open Radio for North Korea, which are the main sources of independent news and information available to the North Korean population. Operating since the mid-2000s, they are the first radio stations run by North Korean refugees to broadcast to the population in the north.
North Korean media portray all dissidents and foreign journalists as liars attempting to destabilize the government, and authorities sharply curtail the ability of foreign journalists to gather information by seizing their mobile telephones upon arrival, preventing them from talking to people on the street, and constantly monitoring their movements. In March 2009, two U.S. journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, were arrested at the Chinese border and incarcerated in North Korea for committing “hostile acts.” They were sentenced in June 2009 to 12 years in a labor camp, but were freed in early August 2009 after former U.S. president Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang to negotiate their release. The dictatorial regime does on occasion invite the foreign press to cover events such as parades and festivals that shed a favorable light on the state. In October 2010, foreign correspondents were invited to the 65th anniversary of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, during which Kim Jong-il formally presented Kim Jong-un as his successor.
In 2007, a Japanese journalist and several North Korean refugees launched Rimjingang, the first newsmagazine to be based on independent reporting from inside the country. The reporting is conducted by specially trained North Koreans—most of them refugees along the border with China—who have agreed to go back into North Korea and operate as undercover journalists using hidden cameras. A number of other news outlets based outside the country, including Daily NK, also provide reporting about North Korea and rely to some extent on sources based inside the country. Although reports from these outlets are easily accessible for people outside North Korea, within the country, most citizens still rely primarily on state-owned broadcasting agencies for news.
In a recent opening to Western media, North Korea agreed to allow the Associated Press (AP) to open its first full-time and all-format news bureau in the country. The AP office, which had been due to open in December 2011, was delayed following the death of Kim Jong-il. The new office will be located inside the headquarters of the state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang. Though the agency previously opened a video bureau in 2006, its photographers and journalists will now be able to work there on a regular basis—albeit under heavy restrictions.
There are currently no accurate statistics measuring the rate of internet penetration in the country. However, the online presence of North Korean media has increased in recent years. Rodong Sinmun, the ruling party newspaper, launched a new website in February 2011, while the KCNA website has improved since debuting in 2010. The website of the Korean Friendship Association, a major channel for promoting propaganda abroad, offers multimedia content, including videos. North Korea maintains YouTube and Twitter handles under the name of Uriminzokkiri. These new connections, however, have little significance for average citizens. Global internet access is still restricted to a handful of high-level officials who have received state approval, and to foreigners living in Pyongyang. For average citizens, web access is available only to a nationwide intranet that does not link to foreign sites. The Korea Computer Center, a government information technology research center, controls the information that is allowed to be downloaded onto the intranet. As personal computers are highly uncommon in homes, most access occurs via terminals in libraries or offices.