North Korea has sentenced a woman in her 20s to two decades in prison for distributing a large amount of “impure” cultural materials, Daily NK has learned. 

Even as North Korea intensifies punishments for importing South Korean pop cultural items such as films, TV shows and music, young North Koreans continue to enjoy and long for them. As a result, the authorities are handing down even harsher punishments.

According to a Daily NK source in South Pyongan Province on Friday, the woman — identified by her family name of Choe — was arrested by a strike force of the local branch of Unified Command 82 (the unified command on non-socialist and anti-socialist behavior) in Kaechon early last month for distributing large numbers of USBs and SD cards filled with South Korean movies, TV shows and other cultural items.

The source said Choe was sentenced to 20 years after the authorities slapped the additional charge of “promoting the consumption of foreign culture ahead of the birthday of late national founder Kim Il Sung on Apr. 15” on top of the existing charge of illegally selling and distributing recordings unapproved by the state.

The authorities subjected Choe to an intense investigation since she was caught selling illegal recordings ahead of Kim Il Sung’s 110th birthday.

During Unified Command 82’s investigation, Choe reportedly confessed to illegally selling and distributing South Korean movies and TV programs — i.e., “impure” materials — over many years. In particular, she had been selling SD cards with South Korean films or TV programs for USD 20 to 70 each, depending on how many recordings they contained, and even watched the illicit materials together with friends who gathered for holidays and birthdays.

North Korea adopted a law to eradicate so-called “reactionary thought and culture” in December 2020. 

According to explanatory material for the law obtained by Daily NK last year, Article 27 of the law calls for sentences of five to 15 years of correctional labor against people caught watching, listening or possessing “films, recordings, publications, books, songs, drawings or photos from South Choson [South Korea],” and life sentences of correctional labor or death for individuals who import and distribute such materials.

A scene from South Pyongan Province taken in 2014 (Wikimedia Commons, Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

That North Korea sentenced Choe to a sentence heavier than the legally mandated one suggests the authorities intend to generate a climate of fear by demonstrating to people that even more severe punishments await anti-socialist and non-socialist behavior.

In this way, North Korean authorities believe people who illegally distribute or sell foreign cultural content are the reason why the country’s citizens are being exposed to capitalist culture that threatens the regime, and is intensifying crackdowns as they enact laws to punish such behavior.

With people openly distributing USBs and SD cards full of South Korean pop cultural content like films and TV shows despite the new law, the authorities are demonstrating — through severe punishments — that they will never overlook or forgive behavior that goes against the regime. 

According to Daily NK’s source, Choe was quickly investigated and tried within just 10 days of her arrest.

The source further reported that Choe was severely punished as her bust came while the authorities were conducting an intensive ideological training campaign directed at the youth. He said the case demonstrates that the government’s “war of extermination” on anti-socialist and non-socialist behavior is more than just words.

The source added that the government is quickly moving to crackdown on people watching and distributing South Korean movies and TV dramas and he thinks that people who were boldly selling or purchasing USBs or SD cards with foreign films despite the intensified inspections and crackdowns will now lie low after Choe’s case.

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler. 

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Kim Chae Hwan is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. He can be contacted at dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.