- Associated Press - Thursday, May 10, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — The growing availability of news media and cellphones in reclusive North Korea likely forced it to admit within hours that its long-range rocket launch last month was a failure, the U.S. human rights envoy to the country said Thursday.

The envoy, Robert King, was speaking at the launch of a U.S. government-funded study that says North Koreans now have unprecedented exposure to foreign media, giving them a more positive impression of the outside world.

North Korea allowed foreign journalists extensive access to the country to report on the centennial of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung, in mid-April, which included the launch of a satellite into space that violated U.N. sanctions. The rocket, which uses the same technology as ballistic missiles, disintegrated within a minute or two of takeoff.

“The media environment in North Korea has changed and is changing, and with the availability of cellphones for internal communication, and greater availability of information internally, you can’t just say, ‘Let’s play patriotic songs’ so all can tune in,” Mr. King said.

The study, commissioned by the State Department and conducted by the InterMedia consulting group, said North Korea still has the world’s most closed media environment — there’s still no public access to the Internet — but the government’s ability to control the flow of information is receding.

Restrictions that threaten years in prison and hard labor for activities such as watching a South Korean soap opera or listening to foreign news broadcasts have been tightened since the mid-2000s but are enforced less than in the past, the study said. People remain wary of government inspection teams, but fewer citizens appear to be reporting on one another.

“The state can’t count on their citizenry to turn each other in,” the main author, Nathaniel Kretchun, said.

The study, titled “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment,” is based on research involving several hundred North Korean defectors and refugees in 2010-11.

It found that nearly half had watched a foreign DVD, the most commonly used type of outside media. About a quarter of people had listened to a foreign radio news broadcast while in North Korea or had watched a foreign news station.

Nearly one-third of television watchers whose sets were fixed to state-run programing had modified them in order to capture a signal from outside stations detectable along the Chinese and South Korean borders.

North Korea is separated from the more prosperous South Korea by a heavily militarized frontier, and access to the North remains strictly controlled. The communist government’s monopoly on information began to erode in the late 1990s, when famine led to less reliance on and trust in the state, Mr. Kretchun said.

Nowadays, North Koreans with exposure to outside news or entertainment media are more likely to be favorably disposed toward South Korea and the United States — the North’s traditional enemies — although they would be extremely limited in their ability to express such views or act on them, the study said.

“Ultimately, North Korea is losing control of what its people are seeing and listening to and how people are thinking about their socio-economic conditions and the outside world,” said Abraham Kim of the Korea Economic Institute.

However, the study said those changing perceptions are unlikely to translate into significant pressure on the North Korean government in the short term. Also, Mr. Kretchun cautioned that the research, based on accounts from refugees and defectors, is not necessarily representative of those still living in the country.

Access to technology has picked up rapidly in recent years, fueled by cheap imports from China. Some 74 percent of those interviewed had access to a TV when they lived in North Korea, and 46 percent had access to a DVD player. Computers, portable USB drives and illegal Chinese mobile phones that can make international calls — unlike local cellphones — also have begun entering the country in substantial numbers, especially among the elite.

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