Amidst groundbreaking talks for peace on the Korean Peninsula, ideological freedom for the people of North Korea has become a focal point of discussions for what constitutes unity between the long-divided nations. Cultural humanitarianism encompasses several efforts – some government-sanctioned, but some not – to bring foreign media to the citizens under the oppressive DPRK regime. Are these efforts, however nobel they may seem on first glance, actually beneficial?
Few efforts have gone as viral as famous North Korean defector Lee Min-bok’s effort to airdrop thousands of copies of The Interview into DPRK territory from South Korea. Media buzz surrounding the event focused mainly on the absurdist nature of the film. Speculation centered around the impression that the outside world’s perspective on the regime would give the people, and what the ideological and cultural impacts of the airdrop would be. It failed, however, to consider the unintended consequences on the very people they were trying to reach. Citizens of both the North and the South have made clear how dangerous the balloons are for residents close to the border; for example, in October of 2014, shots were exchanged between sides after North Korean soldiers fired on balloons carrying anti-regime leaflets intended for the DPRK. In fact, the fate of many of the balloon information drops into North Korean territory is generally unknown. Many activists argue that leaflets often don’t even reach their intended sites of distribution. In some ways, it can be argued that the only concrete outcome of balloon propaganda from both sides is the worsening of their relations.
Balloon drops are just one method of information smuggling; many increasingly complex techniques of getting media into North Korea include utilizing pre-existing black market trade routes over the border and even secret radio stations. But if such humanitarian efforts are so fallible, why do they remain so popular with Western audiences? Flashdrives for Freedom, an initiative to send foreign media into the DPRK through donated thumb drives, has achieved internet fame, further raising the question of why such efforts have such a novel appeal to outsiders.
On paper, sending foreign media that contradicts Kim Jong-un’s propaganda machine makes sense: if citizens become privy to a world that their government has tried so desperately to keep them from, social reform becomes more realistic, even attainable. It’s alluringly easy to support cultural humanitarian outreach from an outsider’s viewpoint, but the issue isn’t so black and white. Many fail to consider the consequences this aid condemns on the very individuals they aim to serve. Citizens of the regime caught with foreign information in any format are met with severe consequences. In fact, Flashdrives for Freedom acknowledges the issue of danger of information possession, but fails to address it other than insisting “access to information is a fundamental right, not a privilege.” But in the eyes of a tyrannical regime, what is right and what is law are two tragically different realms, and the idealism of a lawful and just world of information freedom simply isn’t feasible under a ruthless government. Instigating permanent and significant social reform relies first and foremost on fundamental change that can’t be achieved through the vague hope that smuggled foreign media will inspire social change.
Furthermore, it’s hard to argue that humanitarian aid in the form of cultural enlightenment is inherently more valuable than aid in the form of medicine, food and shelter, all of which are still desperately needed. In August of 2018, the North Korea faced devastating food shortages due to heat waves and ensuing crop death. Under the Trump administration’s strict trade sanctions, relief groups also struggled to provide basic needs to struggling communities, such as parts for farming equipment and basic health care needs. Meanwhile, culturally based humanitarian aid efforts remain widely underground. Flashdrives for Freedom, for example, operates through black market smuggling. Balloon airdrops to the North are generally performed at night to avoid detection and immediate conflict, and other efforts have become as subtle as to pass medicine, messages and food through bottles thrown to the mercy of ocean currents from South Korea’s Ganghwa Island. Counterintuitively, these illegitimate avenues have faced much fewer issues with accessibility to North Korea than official humanitarian aid groups, presenting a fundamental contradiction of needs. The idealistic intentions of sending inflammatory media to North Korea face much deeper issues than censorship if the population they are attempting to reach doesn’t have basic necessities for life, much less the privilege of imagining ideological freedom.
There’s no question that cultural and ideological enlightenment for the ruthlessly oppressed citizens of North Korea is a noble goal. Currently, the majority of cultural smuggles to North Korea is made up of pop culture exports, such as soap operas and action films. While maybe not particularly educational or provocative, they provide much needed knowledge of the outside world. While benefits of this are clear, they’re not what the country needs. Dreams of inciting social revolution through information exposure are romantic and idealistic. They rely on Western commodities of infallible optimism and fail to recognize real-world consequences and the harsh realities of life in the North. It must be recognized that revolution by ideology cannot begin without the establishment of basic rights to life for a silenced people.