By Blaine Harden
The Washington Post
SEOUL, South Korea — Cheap Chinese TV sets and video players, together with pirated videotapes and DVDs, are lifting the lid on information reaching the North Korean people, according to defectors and experts on Kim Jong-Il's dictatorship.
The unsealing process — underway for nearly a decade and accelerating this year — coincides with the crumbling of North Korea's centralized economy and the rise of street markets.
In those markets, doing business daily nearly everywhere in the North, are cut-rate electronics and knockoff videos that have acquainted a sizable number of North Koreans with the wealth and razzmatazz of the capitalist world.
Watching South Korean soap operas and Hollywood movies inside North Korea, defectors say, is scary, exhilarating and depressing.
"We closed the drapes and turned the volume down low whenever we watched the James Bond videos," said a North Korean woman, who two years ago fled her fishing town in a boat with her husband and son. "Those movies were how I started to learn what is going on in the world, how people learned the government of Kim Jong-Il is not really for their own good."
The woman, 40, who now lives in a Seoul suburb and did not want her name published because her parents are still in the North, said Chinese consumer electronics began to trickle into her coastal region in the mid-1990s, when massive crop failures and widespread famine forced the government to tolerate private trading.
By 2002, when Kim officially approved limited market reforms, she said, she and her neighbors could sell fish for cash. She used that cash to buy, among other manufactured goods from China, a color television and a videotape player.
In addition to Bond movies, she said, she learned about the world beyond North Korea from Hong Kong gangster films and from South Korean television, which she could receive on her Chinese-made TV.
Her son, now 17, said his understanding of the United States — where he hopes one day to live — was formed by watching old videos of "Charlie's Angels."