North Koreans search for alternatives amid S. Korean media crackdown

Examples of media-playing devices widely used in North Korea. Image: Daily NK

Kim Jong Un has demonstrated a willingness to engage with South Korea through the country’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics, but domestically, the regime has been strengthening its control over the cultural influence of South Korean media abroad, known as “Hallyu.”

The trend can also be seen in wider efforts by the North Korean regime as it seeks to stop the spread of the ‘Korean Wave’ by punishing students caught watching South Korean videos and sending them to youth labor-reform centers. The North Korean regime has long held the position that as the North Korean people have more access to outside information, the more likely they are to have anti-regime opinions.

According to Daily NK sources, consumption of South Korean media in the North has been slowing down due to the authorities increasing the level of punishment for the crime.

On March 21, a source in North Pyongan Province said in a phone call with Daily NK that “people are too scared to watch South Korean dramas, because Group 109 (the agency in charge of monitoring the distribution and viewing of videos) is eager to catch people,” adding that, “there is even a rumor that agents are using advanced technology to catch people, so people are very wary about watching South Korean movies.”

A source in Ryanggang Province said that “(compared to earlier times) 80% of merchants selling and renting South Korean dramas have disappeared. People would rather do drugs than watch South Korean videos.”

“It used to be that you just needed money to watch South Korean dramas, but that’s no longer the case. Now only Ministry of State Security (MSS) officials or agents can openly watch them, while ordinary people have to find secretive methods to view them.”

The North Korean regime is even intensifying its control over Chinese movies and dramas, springing from the regime’s resentment of China’s active participation in international sanctions against the North. As a direct result, Daily NK sources are reporting that Indian films have suddenly become popular.  

“Since all other videos are blocked, there are a lot of people watching Indian videos. They’re pretty fun, but because they’re so culturally different, the interest doesn’t last long,” noted a source in Pyongyang.

“The regime is trying to force people to only watch videos it approves of. Speaking from Kim Jong Un’s perspective, it’s a success.”

It is estimated that the influence of South Korean media hit North Korea during the early 2000s. During the “Arduous March” (a period of widespread famine) in the mid to late 1990s, the North Korean regime’s control of its borders loosened, and culture from the outside world began to enter via the Chinese border.

During this time, illegally copied South Korean dramas and films on CDs entered North Korea en masse, and the North Korean people started to change their ways of talking and acting. With the spread of various video players and storage devices (USB, SD cards, etc.), watching videos became a highly popular cultural phenomenon among the North Korean population.  

As North Koreans began to mimic the ways South Koreans talked and dressed, the North Korean regime responded by promoting “ideological warfare” to control and punish those watching the videos.   

The authorities began by increasing the number of groups tasked with clamping down on the influence of South Korean media. These groups, including Group 109, 114, and 727, are responsible for monitoring the spread of illegal publications and videos. In addition, there have also been measures to create special groups focused on controlling the spread of publications and videos.

The government has also been active in creating the legal infrastructure necessary for the crackdowns. Due to new criminal laws passed in 2015, the North Korean regime has been sentencing those caught to 5 to 10 years of forced labor for smuggling and “distributing decadent culture and committing decadent acts.” The changes mark a sharp intensification in the level of punishment, which used to involve a maximum sentence of five years.

Analysts have long noted that the measures are part of the regime’s strategy to oppress the North Korean people by completely blocking the infiltration of outside information.

However, it remains to be seen whether the regime’s efforts will be sufficient. It is difficult to imagine that the North Korean people’s desire for outside information will simply disappear.

“The North Korean people want to continue watching South Korean movies and dramas, because they show the everyday life of people outside of North Korea and contain information about the outside world that they cannot find in North Korea,” said one defector who held a high-ranking position in North Korea, speaking with Daily NK on condition of anonymity, 

“The regime may be able to stop it for a short time, but it’s likely that ‘Hallyu’ will continue to spread in undetectable ways.”
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