A £34 Media Player is Helping North Koreans Thwart Censorship

By Kate Knibbs on at

A £34 media player is becoming a threat to North Korea's oppressive, isolationist regime. Many North Koreans are using cheap, portable Chinese media players to learn about the outside world and watch contraband foreign TV, news, and films.

Image: screenshot of Chinese media player via Alibaba

North Koreans call these portable media players "notels" or "notetels," a portmanteau of "notebook" and "television." They have USB and SD ports and can tune for radio and TV, so people can watch shows loaded onto USB sticks they swap with each other. They're chargeable with car batteries, which is crucial in a country where electricity is unreliable. North Koreans have been buying notels since at least 2005, but last year, Pyongyang legalised the small devices, making them even more accessible.

Reuters' James Pearson talked to North Korean defector Lee Seok-young, who has smuggled over 18,000 notels from China to North Korea. Seok-young explained why the devices are so important for North Koreans who want to watch contraband without facing harsh consequences:

"To avoid getting caught, people load a North Korean DVD while watching South Korean dramas on a USB stick, which can be pulled out," he said. "They then tell the authorities, who feel the heat from the notel to check whether or not it has been recently used, that they were watching North Korean films".

North Korea does have its own neutered Android tablets, but they don't have disc drives, USD/SD ports, or Wi-Fi, and they're £134. The media players, while not as up-to-date, are far more practical for surreptitious South Korean drama marathons.

In places like New York and Seoul, watching a candy-coloured K-Pop video or a re-run of Friends is just a way to pass the time. But for the isolated people in North Korea, swapping and watching contraband media is both a grassroots act of political rebellion and a window to a world unmediated by Pyongyang's propaganda artists.

That's why activists like North Korean defector Kang Chol-hwan are smuggling USB drives with foreign media into North Korea, with the hopes that viewing something from the outside world will catalyse a change in thinking. And if enough people have notels and are receptive to the contraband messages, those £34 media players may end up as important tools for social change in the isolated nation.

[Reuters India]