Middle school students in Ryanggang Province caught watching South Korean movie

Popular devices for consuming media in North Korea (clockwise: portable media player, radio, and mp4 player.) Image: Daily NK

In July, the North Korean authorities caught seven middle school students watching a South Korean movie. Although three months have passed since the arrest, the investigation is still ongoing and even the students’ parents are being questioned.   

“In Paekam County, seven middle school students were caught noisily watching a South Korean movie. The media player was confiscated and they are still being interrogated,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on October 18.

“Even their parents are being questioned, but because further evidence keeps emerging, the case is still far from being closed. These days, there are so many units that call themselves surveillance groups and it’s very hard to distinguish between them.”

According to the source, the North Korean government still heavily censors Hallyu (Korean cultural content) and recently, regular censorship by Group 109 others including Ministry of State Security (MSS) agents and regular police have been growing in strength.

“Group 109 patrols through the towns almost everyday and people fear them the most. However, just like Group 109, MSS agents and police also appear without warning. Some units say that they are ordered by the administration but people say that whenever the state needs resources or money, these units show up once in a while and raid the markets,” she added.

Another source in South Pyongan Province said, “Group 109 main duty is to crack down on video players, but police officers responsible for their district can arbitrarily make arrests as well. Recently, the MSS was also given authority to crack down, and so there are now three layers of surveillance.”

“Because today’s media players are small, security agents use methods to search the entire house. If foreign films are found, the police deal with them and hand out punishment. Media players are frequently confiscated but no matter how the strict the enforcement is, there is a desire for information so it looks like video players will continue to spread,” she added.

North Korean residents questioned by inspection unit agent in early 2017 in Chongjin City. North Hamgyong Province. Image: Daily NK

“One female university student was caught copying a South Korean video and watching it and nine other university students who had previously watched the video were also arrested. The MSS stated that the distributor of the video is the main culprit and the most serious offender,” a source in North Hamgyong Province said.

These incidents show that the North Korean authorities take the act of “distributing” South Korean movies, songs, and broadcasts very seriously and are focusing on stopping the spread of Hallyu among the population.  

Along the China-North Korea border, there have been frequent arrests for using Chinese mobile phones, which the North Korean authorities forbid. However, the regime is particularly harsh on those caught calling people in South Korea. Calls to China can often be settled with the payment of a bribe, but calls to South Korea are more strictly handled.

“There have been countless cases where people got into trouble for using Chinese cell phones along the border, but they were let go after paying bribes. Recently in Hyesan, a woman was arrested and her phone was confiscated for video-calling her sister who is in China but she was released after paying 1000 RMB (approx 160,000 KRW),” a separate source in Ryanggang Province said.

“The police probably backed down after receiving money because she was not calling South Korea. Even if people are caught calling the outside, as long as it’s not to the South, the authorities are not that strict.”

*Translated by Yongmin Lee