Information is so tightly controlled in North Korea that the reclusive communist state will not likely be affected immediately by the evolving social network service that has played a pivotal role in Egypt's popular revolution, an expert said Tuesday.
But Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, did not preclude the possibility of South Korean pop culture penetrating deep into the North and changing the isolated society in the longer term. Lankov was addressing a forum here organized by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which operates Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
"I believe nobody has ever been so successful in controlling information in history," Lankov said of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who has controlled the North since 1994 after his father Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean government, died of a heart attack.
Lankov, who studied in North Korea as a Russian student decades ago and travels to Pyongyang frequently, said, "They are just completely cut off from the outside world. They have their local system which is in no way physically connected to the Internet."
Internet service provided by a German company since 2004 is accessible only "by a few major international hotels, foreign embassies and foreign economic officials," the scholar said.
Possession of a short-wave radio to listen to news from abroad carries a five- to 10-year prison term, he said. "Any publications, including publications from other communist countries, are off-limits for people. In order to read People's Daily (of China), North Koreans have to have security clearance."
North Korea has refused to follow the openness and reform that China, its last remaining communist ally, has employed in past decades to eventually emerge last year as the world's second biggest economy after the United States.
Unlike the collective leadership in China, Kim Jong-il, who is in the process of ceding power to his youngest son, Jong-un, in an unprecedented third-generation transition in any communist state, fears any introduction of openness and reform will result in the collapse of the regime already suffering from a chronic food shortage and economic plight.
Lankov said the North Korean economy "collapsed in the early 1990s."
At least 1 million North Koreans are believed to have starved to death in the 1990s due to years of flooding, poor harvest and economic mismanagement.
North Koreans crossed the Chinese border seeking food, gaining exposure to information on China, South Korea and the outside world.
"The Chinese border is essentially unprotected," Lankov said.
"Roughly a quarter-million North Koreans went to China and came back with stories about Chinese success and stories about the outside world. People began to smuggle short-wave radios, which is technically illegal. But because the communist society became very corrupt, you can just pay a small bribe and keep it."
Despite a lack of Internet access, a growing number of North Koreans are being exposed to modern information technology and South Korean pop culture through USB devices, the scholar said.
"In the long run, it will make a tremendous change," he said. Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, speaks to a forum at Dirksen Senate office Building in Washington D.C. Tuesday. (Yonhap News)