Up to half of all urban North Korean households have an easily concealed “notel”, a small portable media player used to watch DVDs or content stored on USB sticks that can be easily smuggled into the country and passed hand to hand.

Notel or ‘notetel’ - the name is a uniquely North Korean word combining ‘notebook’ and ‘television’ - are easily found in the underground market, and are also available in some state shops and markets. The device was legalized in 2014, according to defector-run news outlets in Seoul - one of many recent measures taken by the state to accommodate grassroots change. The new rules, however, also require North Koreans to register their notel, enabling authorities to monitor who is watching banned foreign media.

The transition away from bulky VHS tapes and DVDs is making it easier for citizens to evade trouble during such checks. USB sticks are significantly smaller and can be hidden more easily but are still at risk of being found. MicroSD cards are much more difficult to discover because they are so small and, if they are about to be found, can be easily destroyed by snapping them in half. They can also be easily hidden in someone’s mouth ahead of an inspection.

“To avoid getting caught, people load a North Korean DVD while watching South Korean dramas on a USB stick, which can be pulled out,” a North Korean escapee said. “They 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”.

Photos by Stephen Gladieu
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