A U.S. government-funded study says North Koreans have unprecedented access to foreign media, giving them a more positive impression of the outside world.
But it says North Korea still has the world's most closed media environment, and those changing perceptions are unlikely to translate into significant pressure on their repressive government in the short term.
The study was commissioned by the State Department and conducted by a consulting group, InterMedia. It is based on research involving several hundred North Korean defectors and refugees during 2010-11. The Associated Press obtained the study ahead of its formal release Thursday.
The study, titled "A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment," says restrictions that threaten years in prison and hard labor for activities like watching a South Korean soap opera or listening to foreign news broadcasts have been tightened since the mid-2000s, but are enforced less than in the past. People remain wary of government inspection teams, but fewer citizens appear to be reporting on each other.
Nearly half of those interviewed said that while in North Korea they had watched a foreign DVD, the most commonly used type of outside media. About a quarter of people had listened to a foreign radio news broadcast or watched a foreign news station.
Nearly one-third of television watchers whose sets were fixed to state-run programing had modified them in order to capture a signal from outside stations detectable along the Chinese and South Korean borders.
The authors caution that the interviews and surveys on which their research is based are not statistically representative of North Korea's population. A disproportionate number lived in proximity to the Chinese border before they fled.
North Korea is separated from the more prosperous South Korea by a heavily militarized frontier, and access to the country is strictly controlled. But the communist government's monopoly on information began to erode in the late 1990s when famine impaired the authorities' ability to enforce the blockade, the study says. At that time, people's hunger drove them to seek food from sources outside the state distribution system.
"While it remains the most closed media environment in the world, North Korea has, to a significant extent, opened unofficially since the late 1990s. North Koreans today have significantly greater access to outside information than they did 20 years ago," the study says.
Nowadays, North Koreans with exposure to outside news or entertainment media are more likely to be favorably disposed toward South Korea and the United States _ the North's traditional enemies _ although they would be extremely limited in their ability to express such views or act on them, the study says. While these changing views are unlikely to result in significant pressure on the North Korean government in the short term, many North Koreans "are beginning to look more critically at the basic premises of their country's power structure and policies," it says.
Access to technology in the isolated state has picked up rapidly in recent years, fueled by cheap imports from China. Some 74 percent of those interviewed had access to a TV when they lived in North Korea, and 46 percent had access to a DVD player. Computers, portable USB drives and illegal Chinese mobile phones that can make international calls _ unlike local cellphones _ also have begun entering the country in substantial numbers, especially among the elite.
However, there is no access to the Internet beyond a small number of computers in highly secure or highly monitored areas.
InterMedia does not report on North Korea's allowing the foreign media unprecedented access to North Korea to report on last month's centennial of the nation's founder _ including its failed attempt to launch a long-range rocket in defiance of U.N. sanctions _ and whether that augurs any loosening of state control.