Immovable North Korean Authoritarianism Meets Irresistible Moore’s Law: Which Wins?

North Korea has become a by-word for oppressive tyranny and technological backwardness. But Reuters reports on an interesting development that may begin to chip away at both:

A $50 portable media player is providing many North Koreans a window to the outside world despite the government’s efforts to keep its people isolated — a symbol of change in one of the world’s most repressed societies.

By some estimates, up to half of all urban North Korean households have an easily concealed “notel”, a small portable media player used to watch DVDs or content stored on USB sticks that can be easily smuggled into the country and passed hand to hand.

People are exchanging South Korean soaps, pop music, Hollywood films and news programs, all of which are expressly prohibited by the Pyongyang regime, according to North Korean defectors, activists and recent visitors to the isolated country.

The Reuters story reports that the device has become so popular that the North Korean government felt obliged to legalize the “notel” — but with the requirement that they had to be registered. These versions must be fixed to official state television and radio channels, but the smuggled models are more versatile:

The low-voltage notel differs from the portable DVD players of the late 1990s in that they have USB and SD card ports, and a built-in TV and radio tuner. They can also be charged with a car battery — an essential piece of household equipment in electricity-scarce North Korea.

The dual media capability means a North Korean DVD can be inserted while watching smuggled, forbidden content from South Korea on a USB stick, which can be quickly removed if the authorities turn up to conduct a check on a household.

A key factor driving the uptake of these new devices is Moore’s Law. This has pushed down the price of the components used in the notel box to the point where even North Koreans, with their rising, but still very limited disposable incomes, can afford them. It has increased the capacities of USBs and SD cards such that several film-length videos can be stored on devices that are very easy to hide at short notice. That means it only requires one copy of a South Korean film — or other, even more subversive material — to enter North Korea, and it can be copied and passed around on a scale that makes stopping it almost impossible for the authorities. It will be fascinating to watch the social and political ramifications of this silent struggle between tyranny and technology.

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