Watching TV in the DPRK

OK, I can see how that might seem weird: you've traveled a long way to run a workshop for Choson Exchange in an exotic country - are you really going to watch TV?

Well, TV is a unique experience in North Korea, too, and this past there was a huge upsurge of interest in DPRK television as the country unveiled its own netflix-style IPTV streaming service, called Manbang. This led to some good analysis but also literally thousands of "Manbang and Chill" jokes. 

 KCTV: good for Korean learners

KCTV: good for Korean learners

Much is unknown about Manbang - we looked on the Chinese web to see if the hanja characters for "Manbang" mean "10,000 directions", "10,000 broadcasts" or "10,000 nations" - all possibilities - but Chinese news sites didn't know and were just using Roman letters. We also don't know if new apartment, leisure or entertainment buildings will be wired for the kind of data that is needed for streaming television.

What we do know a bit about is the four TV channels that will offer on-demand services.

1. Korean Central Television. This is the main channel, where news, music, dramas and movies generally play. It broadcasts usually from 3 or 4 p.m. until sign-off at 11 p.m. It is a great way to learn Korean, incidentally, as most music videos are subtitled (in Korean), as are straight ideological/political broadcasts. The latter can be very dry, with a female anchor reading a lesson as the text is displayed on the screen. Again, good for learners, but not terribly entertaining. Korean movies or dramas are also varied in entertainment level, but they often show things not available elsewhere or even on DVD in-country.

 Skydiving from space on Mansudae.

Skydiving from space on Mansudae.

2. Mansudae. This is broadcast on the weekend and is mix of light entertainment, documentaries and movies, often foreign. There is quite a bit of global content on Mansudae. For example, several months after Felix Baumgartner's amazing 39 kilometer freefall, a documentary about it was shown on Mansudae. The content on this channel is genuinely entertaining and it is a popular station. It is, however, quite hard to get outside of the Pyongyang area, so including it in the Manbang package will allow it broader reach. 

3. Ryongnamsan Educational TV. This is also a part-time broadcast channel, and KCNA has lauded it as "popular among students", but we'll be honest: we've never seen it. Ryongnam is the area of Pyongyang where Kim Il Sung University is located.

4. Sports Television. This is the newest channel and was rolled out last August as part of the DPRK's push towards being a sporting culture. It broadcasts three hours per day during the weekends. This was increased to four hours per day during the olympics. Given the popularity of sports in North Korea, it seems likely that bars and restaurants will be clamouring to get data lines installed so they can attract viewers/drinkers.

The system will also broadcast audio (presumably radio) and will allow "all newspapers" (in the country) to be read. Live TV will also be available as well as on-demand.

It is probable that new, showcase apartments will have data lines installed, but it is very unlikely that older apartments will be retrofitted for a service that broadcasts just four channels. Instead, in the coming months, we'll start to see Manbang pop up in libraries, schools, universities, and new bars and leisure complexes. Having the service will be a huge attraction for customers.

We're looking forward to chilling and watching it, too.