Written by Katharina Dorn

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  • Area: 120.540 square kilometres
  • Population: approx. 25 Mio. (2013)
  • Capital: Pyongyang
  • State form: totalitarian dictatorship
  • Official language: Korean
  • Religion: atheist

  • Flag of North Korea

    North Korea is known as one of the most repressive and isolated media systems in the world. For almost one decade, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has been routinely ranking it second last – rank 179 of 180 countries – at the World Press Freedom Index after Eritrea (Freedom House, 2016). In North Korea, the media’s role is to fully support the state, follow its ideology and its leader, Kim Jong-un whose grandfather founded the dynastic Soviet-Communist regime in 1948. Assaults on freedom of information and journalists’ autonomy are wide-ranging in the isolated, microcosmic society: from censorship to severe penalties (hard labor, prison sentences, execution), to defamation of foreign media. North Korean journalists are fully indoctrinated by the regime. All media outurlets are owned and controlled by the state mostly located in North Korea’s center of power – Pyongyang. Influence of foreign media is scarce since it is fully suppressed by the regime. However, several black markets are thriving, selling foreign media to the population which is increasingly demanding them even if the punishment for contraband is severe. Several NGOs also try breaking down the information-wall of the regime. This underground economy and the permeability of the inner-Korean border are key factors for an opening-up in North Korea.
    Communication policy and regulations
    Although Article 67 of the North Korean constitution protects freedom of speech and of the press, these rights are prohibited by the government in practice unless the media report loyal to the ruling party (Workers’ Party of North Korea) and its current leader, Kim Jong-un (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 2014). This restriction is made possible due to Article 11 of the Constitution which emphasizes that “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK] shall conduct all activities under the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Korea” (ibid.). The supreme principle of the constitution is the Juche-ideology which stresses the quest for self-reliance and autonomy of the North Korean State. It also embodies the idea of guidance by the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung who founded the DPRK, is venerated as a saint and is considered as its “eternal president” (Blümel, 2014; Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 2014). Juche has been the leading principle since World War II and the subsequent separation of North and South Korea enabling Il-sung to protect his autocracy and enforcing the idea that North Korea was superior not only to South Korea but to all other countries. It can be regarded as an alternative religion which fuels hatred of the population against enemies of the system (Blümel, 2014). Through this ideology, the government of the DPRK maintains its power and justifies complete isolation from other countries which is also mirrored in the North Korean media system. The development of an information blockade is one of the most important control mechanisms of the state (Kretchun & Kim, 2012: 5). It enables the regime to present its own picture of the outside world to the population which most suits its ruling needs.
    The tendency towards isolation is also part of the North Korean Penal Code which aims to “protect the socialist system from all anti-revolutionary forces” (Hyo-won, 2009). The term “anti-revolutionary forces” also includes foreign media access and possession of illegal, unregistered media devices. It specifies that the importation and circulation of corruptive contents, access to South Korean media, usage of unregistered media devices, and spreading false information that disturbs the social order are prohibited and considered as a crime against the state. Punishment for such criminal activities ranges from unpaid labor, trough re-education or even public execution (Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, 2009; Kretchun & Kim, 2012: 70-72).
    Involved departments of the state are the Ministry of State Security and the Propaganda and Agitation Department. The first plays a crucial role in censorship of domestic media because it enforces laws banning foreign media, pre-sets television- and radio-sets to approved channels, blocks foreign content, and regularly carries out inspections for contraband. The latter controls all media content in the country, which has to pass several layers of review (U.S. Department of State, 2016).
    Media offers
    North Korea is regarded as the country with the least free media in the world due to the lack of independent domestic media, access restrictions for foreign media and severe punishments against citizens violating those restrictions (Kretchun & Kim, 2012: 1; Williams, 2012). The mass media are mainly used as vehicles for political propaganda and for promoting the personality cult of the leaders and their ideology. They can be regarded as mouthpieces of the regime used to preserve the prestige and power of the Kim family (Freedom House, 2015, 2016; Sedaghat, 2014).
    All media outlets are owned and controlled by the government which gives it absolute control over the information distributed to the public (Freedom House, 2015; Joung, 2005; Sedaghat, 2014). All information is gathered and disseminated by the state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) which plays a key role in providing state-approved content to the media and is also responsible for daily press releases in foreign languages (BBC News, 2013; Freedom House, 2015; Joung, 2005; Liston-Smith, 2006). Official access to independent news sources does not exist. By censorship, the government ensures that the population remains loyal to the DPRK and ignorant about the outside world. In 2015, North Korea was ranked second by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on its list of the “10 Most Censored Countries” (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2015).

    Like all other media, the North Korean press is highly concentrated on twelve principal newspapers and 20 major periodicals (all published in Pyongyang) owned and controlled by the state. The newspapers Rodong Sinmun (Workers’ Daily – central organ of the ruling party with a circulation of approximately 1.5 million), Minju Choson (the official government newspaper), and Joson Inmingun (Korean People’s Army Daily) defend the regime (Freedom House, 2015; Joung, 2005; Matles Savada, 1993). English-written content is provided by the weekly Pyongyang Times. The North Korean media are described by Joachim Förster, a television editor, who shot a film about the nation for a German television channel: “On the first page of every newspaper, there’s an image of the leader. They are all owned by the state and they all report about the same propagandistic information”. The impact of the press, however, is rather questionable. Although the literacy rate is fairly high, many people cannot afford to buy a newspaper (Blum, 2014: 71; Schemer, 2002).

    The broadcasting sector is also part of the propaganda machinery of the regime being managed by the Central Broadcasting Committee of Korea (Betts, 2012: 50). Due to the isolation of the country, there is no accurate statistics of market shares or ownership rates, but it is assumed that these numbers are rather low due to the poor economic situation (Liston-Smith, 2006; Schemer, 2002). A survey of 250 North Korean refugees, carried out in 2010, showed that 74 per cent of them owned a TV-set, 46 per cent a DVD player and 42 per cent a radio-set. Only 16 per cent possessed a computer (Kretchun & Kim, 2012: 11). However, this data largely depends on the geographical situation, infrastructure, and status of the interviewees and therefore must be treated with caution. This discrepancy becomes most evident when comparing this data to another study which states that on average only five per cent of the population own a TV-set and only 15 per cent a radio-set (Schemer, 2002).
    There exist four television stations in North Korea: Korean Central TV (KCTV), Mansundae TV (educational and cultural station), Ryongnamsan TV (educational and cultural network), and Sport TV (BBC News, 2011). Only the first two broadcast nationwide (Ismail, 2011: 10). Television which usually doesn’t come on air until 5 pm (due to economic reasons) is mainly dedicated to the personality cult of the Kims (Foster, 2009). “The whole television program is all about the leader and the military. Furthermore, many war movies are disseminated”, Förster said. Radio and TV sets are hardwired and pre-tuned to official programming and must be checked by and registered with the police (Liston-Smith, 2006; Matles Savada, 1993; Sedaghat, 2014; Zeller, 2006). As the Penal Code states, it is prohibited to tune into foreign broadcasts. However, some people take the risk to unseal and open the sets in order to tune into foreign frequencies and sidestep the propaganda (BBC News, 2011; Joung, 2005; Liston-Smith, 2006). Manipulating the sets is considered a criminal offense and severely punished ranging from re-education to unpaid labor in prison camps, torture or even public execution (Kretchun & Kim, 2012: 71).
    Radio is considered the most popular medium due to its affordability. There exist about 40 radio stations with the official Korean Central Broadcasting Station and the international offer Voice of Korea as its main offers (BBC News, 2013; Ismail, 2011: 11; Matles Savada, 1993; Schemer, 2002). Analogous to TV, radio-sets are regularly inspected to ensure that they have not been doctored to circumvent government constraints (BBC News, 2011). In 2003, the Workers’ Party even launched a campaign to check radio-sets. The seals on the radios should be verified by the heads of each party cell (Liston-Smith, 2006). In 2004, radios were officially declared as the “new enemies of the regime” (Joung, 2005).

    Global internet access is almost non-existent in North Korea and limited to only a few elites and selected intellectuals (but almost certainly filtered and monitored). In 2006, Julien Pain (head of the internet desk at RSF) called the nation the world’s worst internet black hole (CPJ, 2015; Ismail, 2011: 12; Liston-Smith, 2006). The regime created a substitute internet – a closely-monitored intranet called Kwangmyong which is filtered by the Korean Computer Center and can be accessed via terminals in libraries or internet cafés. It ensures that only state-approved information can be accessed (Sedaghat, 2014; Zeller, 2006). Illegal computer ownership and usage are controlled by the 109 United Joint Commander and the 1118 Censoring Agency. Depending on the organization, people can avoid punishment trough bribery. A refugee tells, “If caught with one [foreign content] by 1118 then you won’t survive but the 109 can be solved with money” (North Korea Strategy Center, 2015: 65). Main reasons for censorship are South Korean music and movies which are regarded as the main danger to the North Korean system (ibid.: 66). To avoid censorship and punishment, computer owners refrain registering their devices, hide them inside their homes and store content in USBs (ibid.: 68). In the last years, there has been an increased number of websites of the government, indicating that it wants to create a stronger presence online. The internet has become more and more interesting for disseminating propaganda abroad (Ismail, 2011: 12; Zeller, 2006). Examples are the website of the Korean Friendship Association, the official Youtube and Twitter channels or the regime’s leading site which carries official news in several languages. In 2016, even a government-controlled video streaming service called Manbang was launched. It is even said, that the nation owns a hacker network in the Pyongyang suburb Mangkyungdae which targets other nations. In 2014, the US American company Sony Pictures Entertainment was attacked after releasing “The Interview” – a satirical movie about an assassination attempt of the CIA on Kim Jong-un (Freedom House, 2016; Ismail, 2011: 12; Kittel, 2015).

    Usage of foreign media
    Although access to foreign media remains heavily restricted if compared to international standards, North Koreans access to outside media has grown considerably over the last years. DVD and radio are the most common foreign media accessed (Freedom House, 2015). Moreover, nearly one-third of the population (mainly living near the border) illegally access bootlegged foreign television (Williams, 2012). Black markets have become an important tool for the exchange of information and circulation of foreign media, especially movies and TV series of the south (Blum, 2014: 72; Ismail, 2011: 6). Kretchun & Kim found, that nearly one-third of interviewed refugees (n=200) watched a foreign DVD while in North Korea despite the risk of harsh punishment, like imprisonment or even execution (ibid.: 8). As foreign media are considered as enemies of the regime by the Penal Code and soaps are labeled as “impure recorded visual materials”, raids are regularly being carried out by special units, inspecting homes for the usage of contraband (Bond, 2015; Ismail, 2011: 6). Even though the government exerts enormous pressure on contraband users, many citizens apply new methods to avoid the surveillance and threats. Consuming foreign media created greater space between population and its leaders, and between the state’s portrayal of North Korea and the reality (Kretchun & Kim, 2012: 3). The government seems to no longer maintain a total monopoly on information.
    Journalists' autonomy
    North Korean journalists are controlled at the institutional, ideological and physical level. Their main task is serving the regime and promoting the cult of personality of their leader which reduces media freedom to a minimum. However, the influence of refugee journalism has increased in the last years eroding the sterile information environment of the state.

    Selection, training, and indoctrination
    Access to journalism is highly restricted in North Korea. All journalists have to be members of the Workers’ Party and are appointed by the Central Committee (Blum, 2014: 70; Freedom House, 2015; Sedaghat, 2014). In order to become a journalist, one must graduate from college, pass through an ideology review and a background check. After this, the aspirant is drafted by college deans and has to absolve a probation period of four to five years. Journalists have to uphold government approved journalistic standards which are taught to them by four axioms at journalism school (Blum, 2014: 71; Joung, 2005). Each journalist has to
    • publicize the greatness of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un,
    • demonstrate the superiority of North Korean socialism,
    • denounce the imperialist and bourgeois corruption, and to
    • criticize the invasion instinct of the imperialists and the Japanese.
    Consequently, journalists are political activists who guard, defend and advocate for both the party and the party head’s ideology. They receive continuous re-education by the Chosen Reporter Alliance on the philosophy of the Kims (Blum, 2014: 71). Kim Gil-sun, a former editor, states, “We had to attend lectures every Saturday from 9 am to 5 pm. Central Committee members taught us about the achievements of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, their leading speeches and the party’s ideology […]. Our test results were obviously crucial for our careers” (Joung, 2005). Furthermore, the journalists are all required to read a 1983 book by an anonymous author who calls Kim Jong-il “the great teacher of journalists” and contains, inter alia, rules about the role of the media: “The radio is the ideological weapon of our party. Each word […] has to capture the hearts of the masses, inspire them and frighten the enemy” (Kuster, 2000).

    Serving the propaganda of the regime
    After World War II, North Korea increasingly developed tendencies of aggression and isolation towards other nations. To maintain the status quo, one of the main purposes of the media is the dissemination of propaganda (Blum, 2014: 70; Ismail, 2011: 9; Joung, 2005). “The system can only work, if the country isn’t accessible from the outside world and the body of thought cannot be influenced” (Förster, 2015). Therefore, the media is highly censored, one-sided and exaggerated – playing little or no role in gathering and disseminating vital information true to facts. Propaganda has a dual purpose, as it is used to mislead the North Korean public about the situation inside and outside the country. As Kim Il-sung stated, North Korean media are both used to influence North Koreans and confuse the outside world (Quick, 2003: 687).
    70 per cent of the content of the Korean broadcasters is used for Kim’s idolization and propaganda. The rest consists of blaming and predicting the collapse of the USA, Japan, and South Korea. Journalists portray dissidents and foreign media as liars that want to destabilize the government (Freedom House, 2015; Joung, 2005). Foreign media content has also been modified by the regime: “The pictures of foreign publications carrying Kim’s ‘articles’ and of foreign groups studying his thoughts are tangible proof of the international stature of their Great Leader” (Hunter, 1999: 22). It has even been reported that Russians stood in awe when Kim Jong-il was visiting them because the rain stopped and the sun began to shine (Schemer, 2002). Keeping in mind that a big part of the impoverished population has no access to any media, it is questionable propaganda can be disseminated. However, many rumors and information are largely passed via word of mouth (Blum, 2014: 73; Kretchun & Kim, 2012: 18).

    Promoting the cult of personality of the leaders
    Besides the dissemination of propaganda, North Korean media serve the cult of personality of the leader. Since the formation of the country, the Korean media have been consistently writing about the Kim family, reporting about its activities and including prayers about the leader. By following the Juche-ideology, they worship founder Kim Il-sung as a deity, his son Kim Jong-il as “the Dear Leader” and Kim Jong-un as “the Great Successor” (Blum, 2014: 72; Bond, 2015; Foster, 2009; Matles Savada, 1993). “The newspapers carry articles in which they unfailingly hold the president in high esteem, adore him and praise him as the great revolutionary leader” (Lister, 2000). The press mainly consists of flattering articles about Kim Jong-un and his daily agenda. Talking about sensitive domestic issues (e.g. economic problems & famines) is considered treason and is severely punished. High prices are even paid for the slightest mistakes: one journalist has currently spent three months in a re-education camp for misspelling Kim Jong-il’s name. Thus, it is not surprising, that Kim Jong-un has been described as “Predator of Press Freedom” by RSF (Reporters Without Borders, 2016).

    Increasing extraterritorial influence of emigrated journalists
    Since the autonomy of journalists in the country is nearly non-existent, there are increasing attempts of emigrated journalists to circumvent the restrictions and improve freedom of information and the diversity of opinion in the country. Due to this increased flow of information from the outside-world cracks in North Korea’s information-wall are beginning to appear (Kretchun & Kim, 2012: 1,9). Alternative media, like the shortwave radio-stations Open Radio North Korea, Radio Free Chosun, and Free North Korea Radio which were founded by refugees are securely located in South Korea or Japan. They are able to provide the population with both external and domestic news and therefore have become an important strategic tool for providing alternative information and for the fight for a more autonomous journalism in the country (Ismail, 2011: 3-4). Another example is the Japanese underground magazine Rimjingang which is distributed secretly in North Korea being described as the first independent magazine of the country (Ismail, 2011: 4; Liston-Smith, 2006). Information is gathered by undercover journalists with hidden cameras (Freedom House, 2015). They risk their lives to report about repression, poor humanitarian conditions, the daily life in the country and its weak economic situation. Chul-hwan, head of the North Korea Strategy Centre, states, “It is very dangerous. North Koreans caught with video footages are executed on the spot” (Ismail, 2011: 4). Some NGOs, like the North Korean Intellectuals Solidarity (a group of North Korean dissidents resident in South Korea) use balloon drops as a safer way to inform the public. With the help of large balloons, they send USB flash drives with political information and foreign multimedia across the border (Bond, 2015; Freedom House, 2015; Ismail, 2011: 7). This could give people the idea that a free government is possible – and is therefore considered as a threat to the regime.
    This country report was supplemented by additional information from an interview conducted by the student Ludwig Angerer in January 2015. The author thanks the interviewee for his help, with which the content of this country report has been improved.

    Interviewed experts (face-to-face by Lukas Angerer)
    • Joachim Förster: a German television editor, who shot a documentary about North Korea for a German television show in 2014 and traveled the country.



    Related Links

    Official Twitter channel of the DPRK promoting the cult of personality of the Kims. Source:>

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