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For N. Koreans, China Imports Open Window To the World

The Reuters news agency reported last month that a routine enforcement tactic used by North Korean police is to cut electricity to an apartment block and then raid every apartment to see what videotapes and DVDs are stuck inside the players.

"Chinese and South Korean videos are widely available in North Korea to the point where the authorities believe it is a serious problem," said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.

The government tries to intercept videos at the border, Koh said, but the rising tide of Chinese trade and the ubiquity of street markets make it all but impossible to do so.

China is North Korea's largest trading partner and its principal supplier of food, consumer electronics, clothing and fuel. Trade overall is booming, with Chinese businesses rushing this year to cash in on improved relations between North Korea and the United States, according to recent reports in the Asian news media.

China-North Korea trade grew 16.7 percent in the first eight months of this year, reaching $1.25 billion, according to the Chinese customs agency, the Asia Times reported last month. The New York-based Council on Foreign Relations last year estimated Chinese trade and investment in North Korea at $2 billion per year.

"This kind of a thing is not going to stop," Koh said. "A lot of North Koreans now have access to a lot more information than outside people think they do."

Inside North Korea, though, there are wide regional differences in how much outside information is reaching ordinary people.

Those living along the southwest coast can often listen to South Korean radio and television, using affordable electronic equipment from China, defectors say. Tapes and DVDs are much easier to come by in areas near the Chinese border.

But in the interior, there often is less information and less access to videos and DVDs. In these areas, defectors say, not much has changed.

A trickle of letters into South Korea from the North testifies to the continued isolation in some areas.

A Seoul-based nurse who defected from North Korea eight years ago occasionally receives letters from her sister, who lives in the northeast province of Hamgyeongbuk-Do and has little access to outside information.

The nurse, who did not want her name published because she is paying brokers to try to smuggle her 16-year-old son out of North Korea, said her sister's letters beg her to return and to bring as much foreign currency as possible.

In one letter from 2005, the nurse's sister wrote that if she came back with enough cash, Kim Jong Il would not punish her for defecting. "I want our family to be recognized by our great general," the sister wrote.

The nurse, who finds it difficult to control her fury at the mention of Kim's name, said she forgives her sister because she is a captive. "She only knows that place," the nurse said. "She is like a little frog in a well. She doesn't understand."

But because of China's zeal for exporting consumer electronics and pirated entertainment, it seems likely that the number of utterly isolated North Koreans will continue to shrink.

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