Korea: December 20, 2004


The North Korean border with China, long a tightly controlled frontier, has become a wide open conduit for subversive material. First it was radios and television sets that could pick up Chinese broadcasts (most people on the border tend to be bilingual). Then came VCD (Video Computer Disks). The VCD is an Asian development, particularly popular in China. A VCD is a regular CD, holding up to 700 megabytes of material. Using lower resolution, you can get most movies onto a VCD and watch them on a television set using a CD player equipped to read the video files. In the last few years, second hand VCD players (selling for about $5) began making their way into North Korea, along with second hand VCDs themselves (about 20 cents each). China itself was moving on to DVD and fancier VCD players. In poverty stricken North Korea, this led to some enterprising TV owners letting it be known that, for a fee, people could come over and watch some of his VCDs. Initially, Chinese action movies were the most widely available material. But soon VCDs containing South Korean TV shows showed up. These have been popular among the millions of ethnic Koreans living in northern China. These ethnic Koreans often worked as Chinese border guards, and once they noted that the North Korean guards were taking bribes, were quick to encourage as much illicit commerce as they could. VCDs were a favorite, as they are small items, easily moved across the border in broad daylight. Both the Chinese and North Korean government would occasionally crack down on the smuggling. But the guards knew that, if they were discreet, the business would survive the crackdowns and everyone would continue to make money. The North Korean border guards also liked the VCD material themselves.

However, theres more at stake than wealthy border guards. The thousands of VCDs carrying South Korean television shows (especially soap operas, which show ordinary people) entering North Korea were the governments worst nightmare. Now North Koreans could see, in a very convincing way, that all the propaganda about North Korea being better off than South Korea was, well, a big lie. This is creating growing anger at the government. At the moment, the anger is expressing itself as increased corruption and lack of discipline by police and military personnel, as well as government workers in general. Since the state owns just about everything in North Korea, this means that the place is falling apart even faster than it has been. The North Korean leadership studied the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe in 1989. What is happening now in North Korea is what was going on in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.  The big difference is that the North Korean government is far more brutal and militarized than any communist East European government. Romania, however, was the most similar to North Korea, and fell when the secret police decided that it was time for the communist rulers to go. It's uncertain if a similar palace guard coup could occur in the north.




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