South Korea has arranged an array of military, diplomatic and economic responses to escalating provocations from a nuclearized North Korea. Each of them, including the prospect of deploying a missile-defense system offered by the Obama administration, is met with ritual denunciation by the repressive regime led by Kim Jong Un.

But it seems to especially unnerve North Korean leaders when South Korea broadcasts messages — and music — from the tense Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.

“We have to realize how closed North Korean society is,” South Korean Ambassador Ahn Ho-Young said in an interview in advance of his April visit to the Twin Cities, where the Minnesota International Center has made South Korea its 2016 focus country. “These broadcasts can reach deep into North Korean territory, and North Korean authorities are very much concerned about the ripple effect this broadcasting can have on the North Korean population — especially the young soldiers along the DMZ.”

That’s because young soldiers, just like youth worldwide, respond to pop culture. Ahn said cultural content complements political messages about the South’s “superior democracy and economy and how closed and depressed North Korean society is.”

South Korean pop music (commonly called K-pop) “doesn’t need any explanation,” Ahn said. That is, at least once North Koreans get over the cognitive dissonance from the difference from the North’s usual repertoire of “socialist and patriotic songs.”

“Pop music from South Korea may be at first difficult to digest, but then listening you will begin to appreciate the kind of quote-unquote art they have in North Korea, and the more current art which is available in South Korea and other parts of the world.”

Some of this global culture finds its way onto flash drives that some North Koreans are able to use on non-Internet enabled devices (just a few elites get Web access). The flash drives are smuggled over the Chinese border, or floated from the South with balloons launched by civil society groups, including some led by defectors from the North.

It’s a small number of flash drives, but the impact is important, said Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. The foundation and Forum 280, a Silicon Valley nonprofit, have founded Flash Drives for Freedom, which encourages donations of discarded drives that will be loaded with information and entertainment.

“What the North Korean government fears most is outside information, not any sort of weapon or bomb,” said Gladstein.

Like the DMZ broadcasts, much of the content is cultural, not political. But that helps undermine the lies sustaining the regime, Gladstein said.

“Some groups estimate about 30 percent of North Koreans know they are being lied to. Once it gets to 50 percent, people may start making requests — and it may not be political,” Gladstein said. “But small stuff starts to add up, and once that number gets to 70 to 80 percent the current regime will not be able to survive.”

And, in fact, South Korean President Park Geun-hye warned of a North Korean collapse if it doesn’t end its nuclear-weapons development. Park, in a nationally televised parliamentary address on Tuesday, used unusually sharp words to rebuke North Korea, saying the nation is under an “extreme reign of terror” — a description that’s consistent with numerous U.N. reports and accounts from other international institutions chronicling the North’s human rights abuses.

Some who have escaped that reign remember the importance of outside voices.

“Defectors tell us about how they came to learn about the outside world, and how it encouraged them and emboldened them and inspired them to, in many circumstances, risk their lives to escape from North Korea,” Ahn said.

Added Gladstein, speaking of defectors-turned-activists: “They all can tell you an amazing story of the first time their mother played a Hollywood movie, or the first time curling under a blanket to listen to a foreign radio broadcast.”

North Koreans deserve to live like their South Korean cousins, who in the postwar era have built one of the world’s most dynamic, democratic societies. Influential nations need to increase the economic and diplomatic leverage on North Korea. And while the cross-border broadcasts and smuggled flash drives alone won’t change things, they can inspire hope, which in turn inspires dread in despots.


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.


The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go