North Koreans are increasingly able to access global media and other information, loosening the regime's iron grip on their knowledge and potentially bringing far-reaching changes to the so-called hermit kingdom.
Interviews with refugees, travelers and defectors reveal that North Koreans are using illegal Chinese mobile phones, DVDs, computers and small flash drives to work around official barriers to outside information, according to a report released on Thursday.
The interviews, conducted over a decade by the Washington-based consulting group InterMedia, show the "information environment has undergone significant changes" since the 1990s.
North Korea has long sealed itself off from the world, with an official state ideology of juche, or self-reliance, and a narrative that pits a resilient regime against a hostile world. That narrative, and the isolation that has allowed it to flourish, are beginning to crack as new information penetrates the North, InterMedia said.
"Positive perceptions of the outside world can call into question many of the North Korean regime's most central propaganda narratives, which legitimate [sic] the regime by portraying it as the country's protector from hostile outside forces," according to the report, which was funded by the State Department.
The changes in information access are creating a more aware citizenry and "a greater space between North Korean citizens and their leaders and between the regime's portrayal of North Korea and the prevailing reality on the ground," according to the report, titled "A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment."
The report noted that the changes taking place in North Korea so far are "very small" and there is little hope for any near-term grassroots "pushback" against the regime headed by Kim Jong Un, grandson of state founder Kim Il Sung.
Still, the technology and media developments "are illustrative of a potential long-term trajectory for change," the report found.
The conclusions came as Kim Jong Un, who succeeded his late father as leader in December, called for harnessing the internet to collect technology from abroad.
"We must use the internet to find more data on international trends and advanced science and technology from other countries," Kim said, according to a segment on North Korea state television broadcast May 8.
"We need to send delegations to other countries to learn more about what we need and have them gather a lot of references."
Accessing any kind of foreign media is illegal, and harsh punishments are meted out for those caught doing so, the report's authors said. Even so, InterMedia said, breaking those laws seems to be more "normalised."
The report also found "the increase in media access has been accompanied by an increasing willingness among North Koreans to share information with those they trust."
"Far fewer North Koreans appear to be reporting on each other than before," according to the report.
Bonds created by shared prohibited behavior are a breeding ground for ideas that go beyond - or even run counter to - the regime's version of reality. "In these most nascent seeds of civil society lies the potential for continued change on the ground level in the lives of ordinary North Koreans," the authors said.
The elites have the greatest exposure to outside media, with computers, USB drives and illegal Chinese mobile phones entering the country in substantial numbers, according to the report.
The increased media penetration may explain why the normally hermetic leadership chose to invite foreign media to watch its April 12 missile launch and then, after it disintegrated over the Yellow Sea, admitted the failure publicly.
Almost half the study's sample group reported seeing a foreign DVD while in North Korea, with the study identifying DVDs as the most commonly accessed form of outside media in North Korea.
Norms around foreign DVD viewing appear to be shifting as well, according to the study, with evidence that people gather to watch them. DVDs of South Korean films would provide visible proof of the South's prosperity and quality of life.
Those living along the militarized Chinese and South Korean borders are also able to access foreign television shows. Radio broadcasts remain the most important vehicle of real-time outside news.
Foreign media consumption also appears to be an addictive pastime, the report states, "in which people exposed to one form of outside media are more likely to seek out additional sources."
North Korea, one of the world's most militarized countries, is consistently ranked by groups such as Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International as having the worst human rights record and least free media in the world.
The report's authors note that "outsiders" could speed the pace of change leading to the weakening of the communist- inspired regime.
"There is a role for outsiders to play in encouraging and catalyzing the changes naturally occurring in the media environment by promoting greater access to information for North Korean citizens," the report found. "While the fine points of strategy can, and should, be debated, the potential influence of programs designed to equip North Koreans with more sources of useful, objective information is clear."