While I watch very little television at home and I would seldom ever watch it while travelling, after my 2014 trip to North Korea I urged future visitors to actually watch a little television. Television, like many other things, in North Korea – or rather the programming content – is not quite like the television most of us are accustomed to at home. North Korea is not your everyday normal location.
When I ask the visitor to watch TV there I mean watch the local channels as foreigners also, depending on their hotel choice, have limited access to foreign stations. Of course, all local programming is in Korean but don’t let that deter you.
I continue to hold to my 2014 advice though during my 2018 visit I was rather unlucky in the sense that in the hotel rooms that I could get a reception at all that reception was poor. Other group members had better receptions so I guess I could have asked for a change of rooms.
I am not suggesting that you spend a lot of time on this activity as half an hour will suffice for all but the most ardent and loyal party member. That said, my 2018 visit coincided with a number of important and momentous events for the country, some of which could only be seen on TV. On National Day, the 9th of September (2018), there was a full scale military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, on the 9th of September 1948, and that evening the Mass Games, a spectacular artistic and gymnastic display, made a reappearance after a five year hiatus. The following evening there was a torchlight parade and a fireworks display and about a week before we finished our tour Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s President, visited Pyongyang for talks with Kim Jong-un and an historic visit to sacred Mt Paektu. Essentially, for the full three weeks we were there there was an amazing level of excitement within the country and, naturally, we wanted to keep up with what was going on, and indeed be part of it.
Alas, despite various attempts to see the full military parade, we could only get to see the fringes of the parade and the torchlight parade was out of bounds for tourists. Likewise we did not receive an invite to talks with the Leaders and worse than that our own visit to Mt Paektu was cancelled as it otherwise would have coincided with that of Messrs Kim and Moon. In terms of National Day’s festivities we did get to see the Mass Games (the same opening performance that was attended by Kim Jong-un) and a fireworks display which took place in conjunction with the torchlight parade.
To see the things we couldn’t get too, and re-watch others, we had to settle for televisions in our hotels, at shopping centres and in cafes/restaurants, which, unsurprisingly, covered all the events at breakfast, lunch, dinner and in between – ad nauseam some might say. I still wonder what the staff in one particular café thought of us as a group of fifteen or so of us sat there taking photographs of and videoing the TV broadcast of some of these events.
Did they really think we were photographing the television itself and did we not have these devices back home?
Recordings of the 2018 military parade, mass games and the torchlight parade can be readily found on the Internet (YouTube). At the end of this review I provide some links.
Television (and indeed radio and all segments of the press) is under the most strict control of the State. I will cover press freedom in my next review. When the average citizen buys a television set (or a radio) they find that it comes pre-tuned to North Korean stations and any attempt to adapt it to receive foreign stations is a most serious criminal offence though this does not stop some tuning in to foreign TV and radio. Large amounts of money are dedicated to blocking foreign radio and television signals with blocking devices having priority when it comes to allocating scare supplies of electricity. In more recent times, particularly around the North Korean-Chinese border illicit recordings of South Korean TV soaps and films have been getting into the country.
There are four major television stations in North Korea. During the week broadcasting starts at 5pm and finishes around midnight. At the weekends and on national holidays broadcasting starts at 9am and concludes around midnight.
Reuters in a 2018 article reported that, based on North Korean issued statistics, 98% of households in North Korea have a television. I find this a little hard to believe given that significantly less than this has access to electricity. One (unsubstantiated) figure I saw suggested that only 30% of households outside Pyongyang had electricity. Illogical variations in figures like this show the problem with reporting any statistics related to this reclusive country. Further, if 98% of households had a TV I feel there would be less need for the numerous public screens (used to disseminate important news) at various locations such as the one depicted below which is located outside Pyongyang Railway Station.
All North Korean stations, in one way or another, promote the Worker’s Party position and demonize all things Western. The typical line-up includes news, revolutionary operas, patriotic music, army choirs, and documentaries on the Worker’s Party, Kim Il-sung and his successors, military parades and locally produced movies. There are also patriotic and revolutionary soapies, lest you be missing Coronation Street or Neighbours during you visit to North Korea! There are no commercials.
If you get a chance, in addition to watching any special events that might be on, you really should watch the evening news. While in Korean, you will get a jist of what is going on from the tone used by the newsreaders. Wikipedia nicely sums this up:
“Newsreaders use one of four tones—a lofty, wavering one for praising the nation’s leaders, an explanatory one for weather forecasts, a conversational one for uncontroversial stories, and a hateful one for denouncing the West”.
North Korea’s most famous newsreader, until her retirement in January 2012, was Ri Chun–hee who was the anchor newsreader with Korean Central Television from 1971 to 2012. More an actor than a newsreader, peasant born, Ri could turn on the most joyous emotions when praising the leaders, tears on their deaths and the most vitriolic diatribes with visible anger when denouncing the West.
Perhaps her most famous rendition is her announcement of the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011. This is available on the internet and I encourage you to have a look – for instance [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9M7egqcX90I]. If you find this a little depressing you may enjoy the enthusiasm of another newsreader as she announces the launch of a rocket – [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7J2Nnl7Ano].
Mementos events of the past couple of years have seen Ri Chun–hee come out of retirement and don her trademark pink hanbok to read the news on numerous occasions including the country’s successful launch of a hydrogen bomb in 2016 and the Singapore meeting between Marshal Kim Jong-un and President Trump in June 2018. Ms Ri used her best ‘weather forecast’ intonation to report on the Singapore meeting.
Earlier I referred to the ability for foreign tourists to access foreign TV stations. In 2014, while staying at the Yanggakdo Hotel, we had access to the BBC World Television service. This was restricted to certain upper floors of the hotel which were off limit to locals, including our Korean guides. In 2018 we had access to Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle in both the Yanggakdo and Sosan hotels in Pyongyang with no access to foreign stations outside Pyongyang. That said, I imagine places we visited for lunch like the Masikryong Ski Resort close to Wonsan and the Hyangsan Hotel at Mt. Myohyang which, while outside my price range, attract foreign visitors would have access to at least one foreign channel.
Not surprisingly, I have not heard of any tourists ever having access to US channels within North Korea.
I am not sure if any hotels still offer the BBC feed. I suspect not and it may indeed be banned. In 2016 three BBC journalists were kicked out for ‘distorting facts and realities’ and having ‘insulted the dignity’ of the country with their footage. In 2017 the BBC World Service launched a Korean language radio service (half an hour per day) despite the North Korean embassy in London having told the BBC “in no uncertain terms” that they did not want such a service to be launched. At the time, Francesca Unsworth, Director of the BBC World Service, indicated that the transmission would go out in the middle of the night so that ‘people have the opportunity to listen under their bedclothes without telling the neighbours’.
Irrespective of what foreign stations are available, in the little free time I had I preferred to watch Korean TV. Not even the BBC could match a local broadcast of a North Korean army choir singing revolutionary songs!
Should my Reader not be able to enjoy North Korean television in North Korea they can tune in to it via the Internet though with increased sanctions in the past couple of years very few online providers are still making it available. This link was operable as at 2 November 2018.
As promised above – links to various National Day 2018 celebration videos – all on YouTube:
Military Parade 9 September 2018 – Pyongyang
Full Version – 2hrs 14mins! Sorry about the “The SUN” logo
With a somewhat more watchable 6 minutes summary at:
An 8 minutes summary, if you can put up with The SUN logo at:
Mass Games 2018 – ‘Our Glorious Country’
Full show .. amateur recording .. not first night, 1hr 26 minutes
Highlights of Mass Games with Kim Jong-un in attendance (the night I attended) – 9 minutes – more on the Leader than on Games!!!
Nice little summary of another night – sped up.. 4 minutes
Torchlight Parade (with associated fireworks)
Full version – 45 minutes
With a nice little 1 minute summary here:
My next North Korea 2018 – General Review – HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea 2018 – General Reviews –HERE