Counter programming

North Korea may let its citizens watch Doctor Who as a way to get more control over them

April 9, 2014
April 9, 2014

BBC television shows Doctor Who, Top Gear, and Teletubbies may soon be expanding to North Korean state television, according to a report in the British paper, The Independent, this past weekend. The BBC, which has been negotiating with Pyongyang (paywall) since January about a TV deal, has declined to comment pending an agreement. And it’s unclear whether an agreement or a working version of Dr. Who’s TARDIS is more likely.

Airing of the BBC shows would certainly be something new in a country where the government controls all broadcasts. Rather than signaling new openness, the prospect of a deal may be a clue of how worried officials are over foreign TV shows and movies already being smuggled into the country.

According to a PBS documentary earlier this year, North Korean security forces have been launching periodic raids of people’s homes in search of banned DVDs. Last year, 80 people were reported executed publicly in seven cities for watching South Korean shows. Still, pirated foreign shows and movies are available throughout the country, as an increasing number of people are willing to take the risk of smuggling the contraband into North Korea and selling it on the black market.

“Information and knowledge of the outside world is beginning to widen out,” David Kang, who teaches Korean Studies at the University of Southern California told PBS. “That means central control is breaking down.”

For state authorities, a deal with the BBC could be a way to bring viewers back to state television, which airs mostly propaganda programs, and retain control of what foreign content North Koreans see. Such a system would be similar to, though far more restrictive than China’s, where officials have allowed some leeway in media and information control, to keep the country’s censorship regime nimble.

Even an occasional foreign show on state TV could be dangerous for Pyongyang, however. Several of more than a dozen defectors interviewed by PBS for the documentary recalled how foreign television and film portrayals of life outside North Korea prompted them to question whether their country really is the unrivaled socialist paradise their leaders claim it is.

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