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Libby Liu

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What Are They Hearing in North Korea These Days?

Posted: 12/10/10 10:56 AM ET

As the world marks the December 10 anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), North Koreans continue to live in an information dark age.

For the overwhelming majority, the promise of Article 19 in the UDHR -- the right to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers" -- is desperately out of reach.

While strategic and military implications of the current Korean peninsula crisis continue to be debated, sadly missing from the discussion is finding ways the global community can deliver the principles of Article 19 to the North Korean people.

Through their official news agency, North Koreans were offered this view from their leaders about recent U.S.-South Korean military exercises:

"The U.S. and the puppet warmongers' escalating war moves in the West Sea of Korea patently prove that they are the heinous provocateurs and arch criminals..."

Do they actually believe this stuff?

Our review of the tightly controlled North Korean press since the Nov. 23 artillery strike on the South reveals that statement to be among the tamer accusations North Koreans are being fed about the situation.

To begin with, it's difficult to appreciate just how misinformed and closed off North Korean society actually is.

A country that jails its people for seeking news and information beyond its borders, North Korea is continually listed at the bottom of free press surveys as the world's worst offender.

Information technology remains banned and Internet access is almost completely unavailable.

Radios, issued by the state, have their dials fixed only to the regime's broadcasts.

But, despite this bleak picture, mounting evidence suggests that there are cracks, through which North Koreans are able to get a glimmer of the world outside their own.

Cell phone use has shot up, especially along the Chinese border where wireless signals are stronger. This also is just one of the means by which many relatives of the 20,000 North Korean defectors in the South keep in touch with their family members.

Restricted technology such as MP3 and MP4 players, DVDs of South Korean soap operas and films, and even USB memory sticks are increasingly making their way into the hands of many North Koreans who get these goods on the black market.

Some of the most sought-after pieces of hardware are shortwave devices to listen to foreign radio.

With the rising popularity of Korean-language broadcasters from the South and overseas, many North Koreans depend on them for reliable information and the latest news on events inside North Korea.

Drawing on audience media research among North Korean defectors and refugees over the last few years, North Korea expert Peter Beck has speculated that there may be more than a million shortwave listeners in a population of 24 million.

Through our contacts inside North Korea, we know listeners sometimes gather and listen together, and then spread information by word of mouth among friends and family.

"Those people who have listened to broadcasts together have to zip their mouths but at some point they tend to talk to other people about it," one North Korean defector said in a media research survey in 2007.

He added, "Relationships forged listening to broadcasts together are almost equal to [a] secret society that is simply not organized yet."

For the regime of Kim Jong Il, the threat is real. As the cracks widen, more outside information is disseminated within North Korea. This makes it much more difficult, if not impossible, for the country's authoritarian government to be the sole source of information for its people.

The fact remains, despite these cracks, that many North Koreans still are less than fully aware of the perilous position their leaders have placed them in during this current crisis.

This is why it's essential for international powers to consider ways of working together to keep the North Korean people informed. Radio is proving to be one of the answers.