North Korea increases punishment for watching Chinese media

The North Korean authorities have recently strengthened crackdowns and increased punishment for residents caught in possession of Chinese movies or TV series, which can now result in five years of re-education labor. The possession of Chinese media has traditionally been less serious than content from South Korea or the US.
According to multiple Daily NK sources in North Korea, Group 109, the squad in charge of controlling external media, was recently dispatched nationwide from Pyongyang, including to mountainous areas, randomly searching houses and immediately arresting those found to be in possession of Chinese media. The agency typically works in teams of three agents in Pyongyang, and teams of five in other regions.
The inspections are reportedly not only targeting recently-released content, but also include classic movies such as “Journey to the West,” “Water Margin,” and “The Love Eterne.” 
“Group 109 is randomly searching houses. If Chinese videos are found during the inspection, they are immediately confiscated, and the resident must visit the Ministry of State Security the next day to receive ideological education and pay a penalty. If you are caught more than twice, the punishment intensifies, starting from six months in a labor correction camp,” a source in North Pyongan Province told Daily NK.
There are also reports that if a person is found in possession of a large volume of Chinese media content or is accused of distribution, punishment of two to five years of labor correction can be expected.
“A resident in Onsong County was caught by an agent while watching a Chinese TV series and ended up receiving five years of labor correction as punishment. It is a common practice for residents in the border areas (where Chinese satellite broadcasts can be picked up from time to time) to watch Chinese television channels. It was the first time that a resident was punished with five years of labor correction for watching Chinese TV,” a source in North Hamgyong Province said.
“The residents used to watch Chinese TV shows instead of South Korean ones in order to avoid harsher punishments. Now they are even arresting those who watch socialist Chinese videos, and bribes do not work well in these cases.”
In addition, Group 109 is said to be searching the houses of overseas Chinese residents in North Korea to crackdown on Chinese videos. “In the past, Group 109 needed to receive permission from the head of each People’s Unit (inminban or neighborhood watch unit) to search the houses of overseas Chinese people but now they first search the houses and request an exception later,” a separate source in North Pyongan Province said.
However, the agents are reportedly only warning overseas Chinese residents not to distribute Chinese videos, and are not arresting them for possession.
The current intensified crackdowns on Chinese content can be interpreted as an extension of the penal code revised in 2015.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency received a copy of the revised penal code in April this year, which stipulates that “a person who distributes or·illegally stores (Article 184) the products of a ‘decadent culture’ shall be punished with five to ten years of labor correction.”
A “decadent act” is defined in the revised penal code as “watching or reproducing a picture, photo, book, song, or a movie that contains decadent, erotic or vulgar content,” and is widely understood to refer to capitalist culture, including South Korean films and TV series.
However, the range of “decadent acts” has recently expanded to include Chinese media content despite the country previously being regarded as a ‘blood brother.’ It is also unusual for North Korea to regulate classic Chinese movies that do not contain capitalist elements.
Some North Korean defectors in South Korea who frequently watched Chinese TV series in North Korea have noted that the regime appears to be tightening its control over foreign media content to a far greater extent than 10 years ago.
A North Korean defector who defected in 2013, identified here only as A in order to preserve anonymity, told Daily NK that he watched a number of Chinese TV series including “Water Margin,” and “The Love Eterne” while in North Korea. “I used to frequently talk about Chinese TV series or movies with friends back in North Korea. The agents easily gave leniency for watching Chinese movies in exchange for bribes,” he said.
One of the reasons behind the strengthened crackdowns on Chinese media could include the increasing amount of capitalist elements featured in the content.
The Korean Wave (a widespread diffusion of South Korea’s culture) began to take root in China approximately 10 years ago, and there have been many cases in which Chinese broadcasting companies have borrowed or remade Korean movies, drama series and entertainment shows. As North Korean residents are wary of being punished for watching South Korean videos, many have turned to watching the Chinese remakes, increasing their exposure to capitalist influences.
As the number of North Korean youths willing to pursue the capitalist culture present in Chinese media content has increased, schools are said to be intensifying punishments. “There have been many cases of middle school students reproducing capitalist behavior they see in Chinese videos, and teachers are frequently searching the bags of students in the name of ‘eliminating the capitalist yellow wind.’ The parents and People’s Units have also been emphasizing the punishment of students who are influenced by capitalism,” a source in Ryanggang Province said.
Some argue that the measure is rather a reflection of the worsening relations between China and North Korea, considering the fact that classical Chinese works have been included despite their lack of capitalist elements. North Korea has been criticizing China for participating in international sanctions at public lectures and in state newspaper commentary.
Daily NK previously reported that the North Korean authorities have been holding public lectures purporting that China is an obstacle to reunification and to prepare for a rupture in Sino-North Korean bilateral ties. Moreover, North Korea’s state media, including the Rodong Sinmun, has published articles comparably critical of China and its interactions with the United States. 
However, some postulate that the North Korean authorities are only blocking external information in order to consolidate internal support, rather than to specifically target the Chinese. 
One North Korea analyst said on condition of anonymity, “The North Korean authorities likely instructed the agents to block all external information in general. But as the field agents have started to crackdown on Chinese content unlike in the past, the residents may have misunderstood the situation.”