The North Korean government has been actively using its new “anti-reactionary thought law” to crackdown on all forms of anti-socialist behavior, including going as far as ordering executions as punishment for those engaging in such acts. 

The law, officially called the “Law on the Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture,” was enacted in December 2020 and is aimed at cracking down on the influx of outside (particularly South Korean) materials such as movies, dramas, music, and books, and punishing those involved in consuming or distributing such materials. Those caught possessing such foreign “propaganda” can face five to fifteen years in prison while those involved in distributing these materials can be sentenced to life imprisonment or even death.

Tougher crackdowns

In recent months, North Korean authorities have stepped up efforts at arresting those involved in such acts by emphasizing the importance of “reporting illegal behavior” by ordinary citizens. The authorities have recently created an entire list of actions that should be reported, including secretly accessing or distributing foreign materials via portable radios or computers and watching, listening to, copying, or distributing “unusual, decadent, or impure material or recordings.”  

The full force of the law was on full display in April, when authorities publicly executed a man living in Wonsan (Gangwon Province) for illegally selling CDs and USBs with South Korean movies, dramas, and music videos. A source quoted by Daily NK inside the country said that the man was caught by his inminban (people’s unit) leader’s daughter while secretly selling storage devices loaded with South Korean content. On April 25, approximately forty days after his arrest, he was publicly executed by firing squad in front of a crowd of five hundred people. 

Minors are also not exempted from being tried under this law. In fact, some North Korean sources say the law is aimed mainly at youth, since they are the most susceptible to being influenced by foreign, especially South Korean, culture. Earlier this month, Daily NK reported that six students in Nampo were arrested and given prison sentences for secretly watching South Korean content. The defendants were two third-year high school boys and four second-year high school girls. The students were accused of watching over 120 dramas and disseminating them among their classmates. As a result, they were sentenced to five years at a re-education camp. 

Moreover, according to local sources, North Korean authorities have been ordering Pyongyang residents to report the number of TVs in each household. The move is apparently aimed at preventing people from watching South Korean programs. Although TVs and radios must be registered with authorities and are manufactured only to pick up local signals, some people find ways to access South Korean channels, either by using foreign televisions or modifying domestic ones.

An image showing a portion of the new anti-reactionary thought law. / Image: Daily NK

“The number of households that have purchased one or two extra televisions has increased, so the police have instructed each neighborhood watch unit to accurately report the number of televisions in each household,” RFA reported recently. Those who are caught breaking the law are likely to be kicked out of the Workers’ Party, fired from their posts, or sent into internal exile. 

A direct threat to party control 

There is good reason for the government to be worried about the influx of such foreign information; it poses a direct threat—perhaps the most significant one—to its grip of control over the North Korean population. As long as people don’t know there are better alternatives to life inside the DPRK, they won’t put up any resistance and the Kim family can continue its dynastic rule indefinitely. 

Despite the harsh rhetoric, crackdowns, and punishments, foreign media continues to spread within North Korea and locals still consume this content throughout the country. The fact that the government felt the need to impose this law as recently as a few months ago points to the circulation of a significant volume of foreign content within North Korea’s borders.  

Recent surveys among defectors show a high percentage of them consumed foreign media while living in North Korea. According to a 2019 survey conducted by Unification Media Group, 91% of respondents said they had consumed South Korean and other foreign content while still living in North Korea. This is despite the fact that 75% of them had also witnessed someone being punished for engaging in this same behavior. 

Documents obtained by AsiaPress earlier this year show just how paranoid the North Korean leader has become about the spread of South Korean ideas in his country. According to one speech he made in September 2020, Kim Jong Un emphasized the need to eradicate certain South Korean terms—which he referred to as “puppet language”—from use in everyday conversation among North Korean youth. He particularly referred to the use of the words “oppa” (older brother) and “dongsaeng” (younger sibling), terms often used among close friends in the South. It is likely North Korean youth picked up on these terms while watching South Korean dramas. 

This is why some are calling the law the “Korean Wave suppression law,” as it’s main purpose is to eradicate materials coming from South Korea, especially dramas and films depicting South Koreans living a prosperous, happy, free life in a modern, safe, dynamic society—a very different reality to what ordinary people experience in the North. 

Too little too late?

Although the government will continue to try and weed out “reactionary” behavior by increasing crackdowns and strengthening punishments, it cannot eliminate the ideas implanted in the minds of people through their consumption of these foreign materials. On the contrary, the more brutal the crackdowns, the more it will highlight the stark difference between North Korea and life abroad, especially South Korea. This will only make the youth more disillusioned with socialism and more inclined to exploring life outside the strict confines of their country. This new law may thus end up having the opposite effect in the long-term, pushing North Koreans away from their outdated system based on juche and self-criticism towards one that respects individual freedom, self-expression, and personal growth.

Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.
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Gabriela Bernal
Gabriela Bernal is a freelance writer on Korean affairs and currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, South Korea.