The United States will invest $50 million (€46 million) over the next five years to surreptitiously bring information about the outside world into North Korea — hoping to improve the image of the US and South Korea for North Koreans.
As part of a broader annual defense spending package, US President Joe Biden signed the Otto Warmbier Countering North Korean Censorship and Surveillance Act into law in late December.
The act is designed to counter the Pyongyang's all-pervasive censorship and surveillance of its citizens. It's named after the US student who was arrested in Pyongyang in 2016 on a charge of subversion and sentenced to 15 years in prison for stealing a poster. Released in June 2017 in a vegetative state, 22-year-old Warmbier died in a hospital in Ohio six days later.
Under the act, funds will be funneled to the US Agency for Global Media, which effectively serves as a promotional organization for the US government, broadcasting and disseminating information around the world.
"It is interesting to me as the US now seems to be more willing to operate in the 'gray zone' that other countries have been exploiting for some time now, with info-warfare now just one of the coercive measures being brought to bear while still staying under the thresholds that would trigger a conventional conflict," Dan Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, told DW.
US hopes North Koreans 'ask more questions'
Washington is playing catch-up to Russia, which has been particularly effective at planting propaganda that furthers its own geopolitical aims, Pinkston said.
The US program will focus on additional radio programming into the North as well as the development of "internet freedom tools," which are designed to help users circumvent limitations placed on free access to the digital world by the North Korean government.
"Radio should be relatively easy but internet access will be more of a challenge," said Pinkston, adding that the "more sophisticated approaches" may not be noticed by Pyongyang at first, but "could quite quickly have an insidious effect on its own propaganda."
"Ideally, a successful 'attack' using information will be overlooked for some time and therefore be more subtle and have the longer-term aim of destabilizing and making the people of North Korea ask more questions," Pinkston said.
North Korea cracks down on foreign media
Eujin Kim, who fled with her mother and sister from North Hamgyong Province in the 1900s due to the food shortages that plagued her homeland, said getting more information into the North would encourage criticism of the regime, but warned it would be dangerous.
Pyongyang has in recent months stepped-up its crackdown on anyone caught listening to foreign radio broadcasts or watching films or television programs smuggled into the country, analysts and defectors cautioned. There have been reports that teenagers who were seen practicing dance moves to K-pop music were sent to penal colonies.
"Twenty years ago, very little information about the outside world got into North Korea, but now many people there have seen news or television shows or films from abroad," said Kim, a member of Freedom Speakers International, an organization which helps North Korean refugees learn English.
"But in the last year or so, it is clear that the government is trying very hard to control the information that is getting into the country," she said. "The regime is very worried about that because it threatens them and only a few days ago, I heard that a teenage boy had been executed for watching a South Korean movie."
'It is getting harder all the time'
The Seoul-based Daily NK news outlet reported in late December that North Korean citizens are being ordered to attend screenings of government movies showing the public humiliation and punishment of people who have been caught with foreign films. Foreign content has been described by the regime as "dangerous toxins that instill delusions about enemy countries and paralyze the revolutionary and class consciousness."
Footage shows groups of people berated by crowds in a sports stadium, their heads bowed as they apparently await their public sentencing.
In January, the North Korean government will pass the Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Act, which bans citizens from using foreign terms when they speak or write. It will also outlaw foreign fashion and hairstyles and increase punishments for accessing overseas media.
"It is getting harder all the time," said Kim. "People have their public faces and their private thoughts, but it is more and more dangerous to share those thoughts."
Edited by Sou-Jie van Brunnersum