By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More and more North Koreans are defying strict government controls on access to outside information that starkly contrasts with official propaganda, said a U.S. study released Wednesday.
Avid consumption of South Korean movies and pop music as well as foreign radio and television broadcasts is changing North Korean views of its southern neighbor and even of the United States, a report by the InterMedia consultancy showed.
"In 2012, North Koreans can get more outside information, through more types of media, from more sources, than ever before - and they are less fearful of sharing that information than ever before," said InterMedia.
The U.S. State Department-commissioned study, "A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment," captures 10 years of research on refugees, travelers and defectors from North Korea, including face-to-face interviews with more than 650 adults in 2010 and 2011.
New leader Kim Jong-un has shown no sign of relaxing controls that keep nearly all 23 million North Koreans unconnected to the Internet and mandate that radios and televisions are preset to receive only government channels.
But North Koreans have been taking matters into their own hands since a 1990s famine prompted an opening of their country's long border with China and official tolerance of markets where food and goods are traded.
"Advanced media technologies such as mobile phones, computers, MP3 players and USB drives, have begun to make their way into North Korea in substantial numbers, particularly among the elites," said the study.
PROPAGANDA PILLARS ERODE
Many of the gadgets are smuggled in from China, whose low-cost televisions, DVD players and other equipment have helped the spread of information, it said, citing one refugee as saying "state officials or rich people" ran these operations.
North Koreans are also buying technically illegal foreign radios that receive multiple channels, or rewiring domestic receivers to receive banned broadcasts, said the report.
"These changes are creating greater space between North Korean citizens and their leaders, and between the regime's portrayal of North Korea and the prevailing reality on the ground," said the 94-page report, released in Washington.
One key impact was that Pyongyang "backed away from its stance that South Korea was economically worse off than North Korea" after exposure to the South's TV dramas made that pillar of state propaganda unsustainable, it said.
Views of the United States, the stock villain of North Korea had also softened through media exposure, the report said. It quoted a refugee who said ordinary people often sarcastically quipped "blame it on the U.S.!" when things went wrong.
The report said that while "severe and often arbitrary punishments are still handed down for accessing outside media," North Koreans were generally less afraid of being caught.
"Enforcement is irregular, bribes often allow one to avoid punishment and far fewer North Koreans appear to be reporting on each other than before," it said.
The InterMedia researchers cautioned that the refugees surveyed tended to come from North Korean provinces bordering China and did not represent the entire population.
Advising against predicting political action from better-informed North Koreans, the report said: "North Koreans' ability to express such views in North Korea is extremely limited and their ability to act on them is almost nonexistent."
(Reporting By Paul Eckert; editing by Christopher Wilson)