SEOUL – Kim Jong-un called this a “vicious cancer” which corrupts “the dress, the hairstyles, the speeches, the behavior” of young North Koreans. Its state media have warned that if left unchecked it would crumble North Korea like a damp wall.
After winning over fans all over the world, South Korean pop culture has entered the final frontier: North Korea, where his growing influence has prompted the totalitarian head of state to declare a new cultural war for it. Stop. But even a dictator can struggle to hold back the tide.
In recent months, hardly a day has passed without Mr. Kim or the state media denouncing the “anti-socialist and non-socialist” influences that are pervasive in his country, especially South Korean films, K-dramas and K-pop videos. As part of a panicked attempt to regain control, Mr. Kim ordered his government to root out the cultural invasion.
Censorship is anything but the temper tantrum of a brooding dictator. It comes at a time when the economy of the North is on the wane and its diplomacy with the West has stalled, perhaps leaving the country’s youth more receptive to outside influences and questioning Mr. Kim on North Korean Society.
“Young North Koreans think they owe Kim Jong-un nothing,” said Jung Gwang-il, a North defector who runs a network that smuggles K-pop into North Korea. “He must reaffirm his ideological control over the young if he does not want to lose the foundations for the future of his family’s dynastic regime.
Mr. Kim’s family has ruled the North for three generations, and the loyalty of the country’s millennials has often been tested. They came of age during a famine in the late 1990s when the government was unable to provide rations, killing millions of people. Families survived by purchasing food from unofficial markets filled with contraband goods from China, including counterfeit entertainment from the South.
North Korean state propaganda has long described South Korea as a living hell swarming with beggars. Through K-Dramas, first smuggled onto cassettes and CDs, young North Koreans learned that while struggling to find enough food to eat during a famine, southerners were dieting to losing weight.
South Korean entertainment has now been smuggled onto USB drives from China, stealing the hearts of young North Koreans watching behind closed doors and draped windows.
His presence has become so worrying that North Korea enacted a new law last December. It calls for five to 15 years in labor camps for people who watch or own South Korean entertainment, according to Seoul lawmakers who have been briefed by government intelligence officials, and North Korean internal documents. smuggled out by Daily NK, a Seoul-based website. The previous maximum sentence for such crimes was five years of forced labor.
Those who hand material over to North Koreans can face even harsher penalties, including the death penalty. The new law also provides for up to two years of forced labor for those who “speak, write or sing in the South Korean style”.
The introduction of the law was followed by months of new dictates from Mr Kim warning of outside influence. In February, he ordered all provinces, cities and counties to “mercilessly” eradicate growing capitalist tendencies. In April, he warned that a “serious change” was taking place in the “ideological and mental state” of young North Koreans. And last month, state newspaper Rodong Sinmun warned that North Korea would “collapse” if such influences proliferate.
“For Kim Jong-un, the cultural invasion of South Korea has passed a tolerable level,” said Jiro Ishimaru, editor-in-chief of Asia International Press, a website in Japan that monitors North Korea. “If this goes unchecked, he fears his people will start to see the South as an alternative Korea to replace the North.”
Computers, text messages, music players and laptops are now sought after for South Korean content and accents, according to North Korean government documents smuggled by Asia Press. Women in North Korea, for example, are supposed to call their dates “comrade.” Instead, many have started calling them “oppa” or honey, as the women do in K-dramas. Mr. Kim called the language “perverted”.
Families of those caught “mimicking the Southern puppet accent” in their daily conversations or texting could be kicked out of cities as a warning, according to the documents.
This is not the first time that North Korea has taken on an “ideological and cultural invasion.” All radios and televisions are preset to receive government broadcasts only. The government has prevented its people from using the global Internet. Disciplinary squads patrol the streets, arresting men with long hair and women with skirts deemed too short or pants deemed too tight. The only hair dye available is black, depending on the Russian embassy in Pyongyang.
But it may be too late to patch up the cracks left in the 1990s. Mr. Jung, 58, remembers watching “Jealousy,” a K drama about a young love, while still in Korea. North and that he had felt a culture shock. “On North Korean television, it was all about the party and the leader,” he said. “You have never seen such a natural manifestation of human emotions as a man and a woman kissing.”
In a survey that the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University conducted on 116 people who fled North Korea in 2018 or 2019, nearly half said they “frequently” watched South Korean entertainment while in the North. A current favorite, Jung said, was “Crash landing on you“, a show about a South Korean paraglider heiress who is swept across the border by a sudden gust of wind and falls in love with a North Korean army officer.
Mr. Kim had in the past seemed more flexible towards outdoor cultivation. In 2012, he was shown on state television greeting a group of girls in miniskirts playing the theme song of “Rocky” while the characters Mickey and Minnie Mouse reared up nearby. Government sanctioned kiosks in Pyongyang sold Disney favorites like “The Lion King” and “Cinderella”. Restaurants showed foreign films, concerts and TV shows, the Russian Embassy reported in 2017.
But Mr Kim’s confidence weakened after his diplomacy with Donald J. Trump, the former US president, collapsed in 2019 without the lifting of crushing economic sanctions. He has since vowed to rule his country through restrictions by building an “autonomous economy” that depends less on trade with the outside world. Then the pandemic struck, exacerbating the economic problems of the North.
“The economic situation in the North is the worst since Kim Jong-un took office ten years ago,” Ishimaru said. “If people are hungry, crime rates could go up. He must tighten control to deter social unrest. “
North Korea has resorted to urging its people to inform others who watch K-Dramas, according to documents smuggled by Daily NK. But many have decided to look away, even going so far as to warn their neighbors before the police raids, according to the documents. “The phenomenon of the dissemination of impure publications and propaganda does not disappear, but continues. “