North Korean Black Market Goods Help Break Hermit Kingdom’s Information Blockade

North Korean Black Market Goods Help Break Hermit Kingdom’s Information Blockade

U.S. and South Korean officials are meeting in Washington this week to discuss provision of food aid to North Korea, amid concerns that the impoverished country is en route to severe famine. Seoul is waiting for Pyongyang to officially request its help, while Washington is basing the timing of its 500,000-ton donation on Pyongyang's progress toward a denuclearization agreement. The talks come just days after Pyongyang released 18,000 pages worth of documents on its weapons-grade plutonium program.

But nuclear weapons technology isn't all that's being bought and sold on the black market in North Korea. After the famine of the 1990s claimed more than a million lives, civilians set up farmers markets to trade food stuffs -- sometimes those donated by international aid agencies -- to stave off starvation. Now all manner of things are bought and sold on North Korean streets, and in some cases that includes cell phones, radios, and other devices that allow the outside world to penetrate the Hermit Kingdom.

When South Korean goods began appearing in the North's markets in the late 1980s, their high quality dispelled official North Korean propaganda about the underdeveloped South. Now bootlegged copies of South Korean television and film dramas have become fairly prevalent throughout the country, bringing images of Seoul's modern cars and affluent lifestyles into North Korean homes. Though many of the DVDs and videocassettes are produced in China, North Koreans have begun pirating the South's movies and TV shows themselves, allowing for cheaper and more widespread distribution away from border surveillance. It's estimated that several million copies of such fare are in circulation throughout the country.

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