WASHINGTON - North Koreans are clandestinely enjoying access like never before to foreign DVDs and radio, shaping the views of a people cut off for decades from the outside world, a US study said Thursday.
The report commissioned by the State Department made clear that North Korea remains one of the world's most closed nations but said that many of its people "are beginning to look more critically" at their government.
The communist regime's ultra-rigid controls began to deteriorate during the famine in the 1990s and North Koreans "today have significantly greater access to outside information" than they did 20 years ago, the study said.
One of the steepest rises has been in DVD viewership. DVD players are not illegal, making it easier for North Koreans -- usually in secret groups -- to watch banned movies from South Korea.
In a survey of 250 North Korean refugees and overseas travelers in 2010, 48 percent said they had watched foreign DVDs while inside the country, up from just 20 percent two years earlier, the study said.
The study's principal author Nat Kretchun, associate director of the InterMedia consulting group, said that South Korean dramas -- popular across Asia -- provided North Koreans a welcome break from their usual diet of stern, humorless propaganda.
"When you get very well-produced, compelling South Korean dramas -- a picture into a place that you've been fascinated with your whole life, because so much North Korean propaganda revolves around South Korea -- that's extremely powerful," he said.
While not overtly political, South Korean productions are an eye-opener to North Koreans. They show that the supposed arch-enemies are well-fed, well-dressed and can devote time to love and leisure instead of mere survival.
However, the study found that DVDs had less influence on how North Koreans view the United States which remained too foreign to comprehend.
The report also found a consistent audience for foreign radio -- with elites looking for outside sources of news and less educated North Koreans preferring to tune in to music or cultural programs.
North Korean authorities force radios to be set to official broadcasts and jam foreign broadcasters -- namely US-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, along with the Seoul-based Korean Broadcasting System.
But in a sign that foreign radio is getting through, the study found that nearly three-quarters of North Koreans said they would search for another channel when they considered foreign content uninteresting. In previous studies, most North Koreans said they would keep listening to foreign channels even if their interest waned, indicating a lack of choice.
Around one-quarter of North Koreans said they had access to foreign television content, but the reach was limited to people living in areas bordering China and South Korea, the study said.
The findings were mostly in line with those of a January 2011 survey by two US academics who concluded that foreign media and small steps toward a market economy had made North Koreans more skeptical of their leaders.
Marcus Noland, the co-author of the 2011 study, said that the research showed the need to step up broadcasts into North Korea by using more transmitters in South Korea and Japan.
"I would not be pushing propaganda," said Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "Just providing what most of us would consider relatively unbiased information would be of enormous benefit."
Speaking at the launch of the study, Robert King, the US special envoy on human rights in North Korea, pointed to the regime's acknowledgement that its April 13 rocket launch was a failure.
King said that such a frank admission was "remarkable" coming from a regime famous for its triumphant propaganda.
"I think the point is that the media environment in North Korea has changed and is changing," King said.
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