I’m a very paranoid person, so naturally I’m terrified of North Korea and everything it represents. And what better to calm my fears than to go to a panel about the scariest freaking country in the world?
Not only was the panel not scary at all, it was mind-blowingly eye opening and interesting. Success! Eric Carvin, social media editor for the Associated Press, moderated a discussion with Jean H. Lee, the AP’s Pyongyang/Seoul bureau chief. Lee is the only American reporter with permission to travel to North Korea regularly, and sent the first Tweet and Instagram photo from the country’s new 3G network. So if there’s anyone in the world in a position to talk about social media in North Korea, it’s Lee.
Lee said once you get to North Korea it’s very clear that they have spent a lot of time trying to keep foreigners separate from the locals.
“Their whole political philosophy is based on self reliance and doing everything their own way, and that extends to every part of their social structure, including the Internet,” Lee said.
North Koreans have very limited access to their international Intranet system. People with access to computers, like university students, can access the Intranet a little more readily. However, they are only given access to state media and information sources that have been vetted by the North Korean government.
This is a stark contrast to the Internet access and general freedom enjoyed by American college students. In North Korea, all Intranet activity is tracked by students’ IDs, which also track all of their movements and online activity. Lee said some universities have special designated rooms just for Intranet use. Since students’ IDs are tracking everything they do, they are very self-conscious about what websites they’re visiting, she said.
Lee said North Koreans are aware that they have very different lives, but they are proud of it. If they feel otherwise, they won’t show it, she said.
“They would never speak publicly about any type of frustrations they may feel about not having (Internet) access,” Lee said.
However, Lee said she is starting to see a more open flow of communication in North Korea. People can now have (very expensive) cell phones, and use the Intranet to exchange messages. Despite this, there is an existing culture of fear that will take a while to get rid of, and people are very conscious of what they say on the Intranet.
As the only American journalist allowed regularly in North Korea, she pretty much always knows when anyone else from the states shows up. Lee said she gave Dennis Rodman the heads up on North Korea’s new 3G network when he visited Kim Jong Un last week, hence all of his Tweets. She also met with Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, when he visited North Korea to experience what Internet freedom is like there.
Lee said state media showed video of Schmidt arriving and followed him around, but their dispatchers were “very factual,” only giving minimal information about his visit. This is an example of the propaganda media the government provides to North Korean citizens. Lee said citizens watch the propaganda because they’re allowed to talk about things once they see them on state media.
I thought Lee’s experience as a journalist gave her a really interesting perspective on the situation. Lee said people seem to think journalists are very controlled by the North Korean government in terms of what they can shoot and report on, but she has never had an issue. The main thing to keep in mind is to be respectful to the locals, she said.
“I don’t try to hide when I’m taking photos and videos,” Lee said. “I’m respectful to my subjects. Generally speaking, if they saw I was being disrespectful I’d hear about it.”
Lee said any Tweet or email she sends in North Korea is in the context of reporter, so the government can’t fault her. However, any time Lee accesses their broadband the government can see what she is doing, so she is conscious of that.