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Notel media player helps North Koreans skirt censorship

Fri 27 Mar 2015

A small portable media device, costing roughly £32, is allowing North Koreans to access and view foreign media despite tight government censorship, according to a Reuters report.

The ‘Notel’, a mashup of notebook and television, is being described as a symbol of change in the repressed society. Used to watch DVDs and shared content from USB sticks and SD cards, the media player can be easily concealed and transported among families and friends.

According to correspondents in the region, as many as half of all urban North Korean households have a notel and are swapping a broad range of banned media such as soaps and TV dramas from South Korea and China, Hollywood blockbusters, and news clips – all of which is strictly forbidden by Pyongyang law.

“The North Korean government takes their national ideology extremely seriously, so the spread of all this media that competes with their propaganda is a big and growing problem for them,” said Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) spokesperson Sokeel Park.

“If Pyongyang fails to successfully adapt to these trends, they could threaten the long-term survival of the regime itself,” Park continued.

According to defectors, activists and recent visitors, North Koreans are beginning to spend more money and the state is beginning to loosen its reigns over the economy to a certain degree. “The variety and number of places for locals to spend money has really increased,” explained an unnamed Pyongyang visitor. “People seem a lot more confident flashing the cash than they used to be.”


The notel, originally smuggled or illegally imported from China, is cheaply and easily available on the black market, but has also recently made an appearance in some state-regulated shops. The device was legalised last year, however North Koreans must register their devices so that the authorities can monitor who is watching what.

Legally-registered notels must be tuned to official state television and radio stations, but there are a number loopholes that North Koreans can jump through to cover their tracks: “To avoid getting caught, people load a North Korean DVD while watching South Korean dramas on a USB stick, which can be pulled out,” said Lee Seok-young, a defector from the North. “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.”

Park, of the LiNK group added: “They have become so popular because they are perfect for overcoming the twin barriers to foreign media consumption: surveillance and power outages.

“If you were to design the perfect device for North Koreans, it would be this.”


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