North Koreans who want to watch anything other than state-produced cinema face a risk: The closed-off nation's autocratic rulers have made it illegal to view movies produced outside the country. And even if you had access to one, there's another problem: How would you watch it?
Yet where there's a want there's a way. For the last few years the country's thriving black market, which grew up during a famine in the 1990s, has enabled millions of North Korean citizens to purchase small video players known as "notels"—a mashup of "notebook" and "television"—that play video discs as well as various other forms of digital media. The devices sell for about $50, and they provide a window to the outside world, with many North Koreans using them to watch prohibited Chinese and South Korean TV shows.
Reliable information about anything in North Korea is hard to come by, but Reuters reports that roughly half the homes in the country may have notels. They've become so pervasive that the state resorted to legalizing the media players, even offering them for sale in state-run stores. But there's a catch: North Koreans are required to register their devices.
Lee Seok-young, a North Korean defector, told Reuters about a common technique: "To avoid getting caught, people load a North Korean DVD while watching South Korean dramas on a USB stick, which can be pulled out. They then tell the authorities, who feel for heat from the notel to check whether or not it has been recently used, that they were watching North Korean films."As always, the Hermit Kingdom wants to make sure it's watching what its citizens are watching.