- North Korea cracked down on foreign influence and anti-socialist behavior.
- The new regulations target not only foreign media, but also slang, clothing and hairstyles.
- Experts told Insider this was an effect of the failed diplomatic engagement, as well as the pandemic.
- See more stories on the Insider business page.
North Korea’s oppressive regime is cracking down harshly on things like foreign films and slang in a crusade to drive out international influence and anti-socialist behavior, what Kim Jong Un called a “dangerous poison”.
North Korean laws are strict and violations come with severe penalties, but enforcement can be unpredictable.
the Daily NK, citing its network of sources in North Korea, reported As of last summer, authorities stepped up efforts to remove things like “dyed hair, earrings, jeans and clothes with foreign letters”.
In December, South Korean media reported that the North Korean government had enacted a sweeping new law on “anti-reactionary thinking” aimed at curbing foreign influence, such as films, music and even foreign slang.
The law threatened violators with heavy fines, jail time and possibly death depending on the seriousness of the crime.
Last April, North Korean leader sent letter to Youth League, urging him to “resolutely uproot negative germs and poisonous weeds,” which apparently includes the inappropriate “words and deeds, hairstyles and clothes” of some North Korean youth.
Hairstyles may seem like a strange thing to the North Korean government, but like Peter Ward, a North Korean researcher, previously told NK News, “first the hairstyles, then the lifestyle choices, then the values, and finally the potentially fundamental questions about power, money and how society is structured.”
Next month, Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, published an article warning against the “exotic and decadent way of life” of capitalism, stressing that North Korean society “must beware of any sign of the capitalist way of life and strive to get rid of it”.
North Korea is severely cracking down on foreign influence, and the question is why now.
“Restore social control in these difficult times”
Expert North Korean observers told Insider that North Korean leaders appear to be correcting following failed diplomatic engagement with the United States and South Korea, as well as responding to challenges posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
As in other countries, the pandemic has hit the North Korean economy hard, especially with the strict confinement of the country’s borders. But while other countries, like China, have started to rebound, North Korea has not.
As North Korea isolated itself from the world, the country saw stricter enforcement of laws against illicit activities, clothing and materials.
“Part of this is trying to reassert party power and try to restore social control in times of trouble,” Jenny Town, Senior Fellow at the Stimson Center and director of Stimson’s 38 North program, told Insider.
She said that “we usually see crackdowns when there are more domestic difficulties than usual,” at times when leaders are under increased pressure. Choi Jong-hoon, a North Korean defector who escaped last year, told the BBC that “the harder the times, the more the regulations, the more the laws, [and] the punishments become. “
Although it had an impact on the country’s already weak economy, the lockdown response to the pandemic also created an opportunity for North Korean leaders to severely restrict the flow of information and outside influence into the country. country, which was increasing until recently.
“Restore the idea that this information is bad”
After a tense year and fears of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, the situation changed in 2018, when President Donald Trump met Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Trump would meet Kim twice more, in Vietnam and later in the DMZ.
Amid the unprecedented engagement between the leaders, the US president and the North Korean leader, there has also been significant engagement between North Korea and South Korea.
South Korean K-pop singers performed for Kim in Pyongyang in the summer of 2018, and then the following month South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited the North Korean capital.
But this welcome period of easing tensions and rapprochement did not last as the talks encountered insurmountable obstacles, and no one walked away from the table satisfied with the outcome.
“Things did not go the way Kim Jong Un had hoped,” Jean Lee, a North Korean expert at the Wilson Center, told Insider. In turn, “he has to reshape the message and make people understand that we are shifting gears here and that we are not ready to open up.”
She explained that Kim Jong Un “tries to take back control over people” and “where they get their information”.
“One of the side effects of the failure of the political process is simply to try to restore the idea that this information is bad,” Town said, referring to the influx of foreign culture.
“Tighten and apply these rules and retract”
The latest cultural crackdown and the campaign to reduce foreign influence on North Korean society is not a new phenomenon in the country’s history. There have been others, not only under Kim Jong Un, but also under his father and grandfather.
For countries like North Korea, leaders must strike a balance between openness and repression of what is really happening in the country.
“Kim Jong Un recognizes that for the economy and the country to develop and grow, they need interaction with the outside world,” Lee said. “But with that comes the risk of losing control.”
“They created this world with such a specific narrative, and the risk of exposing people to the reality of how the real world works is a risk they are afraid to take,” she said. So when “things are precarious, politically or economically, you see them toughen up and apply these rules and retract.”
Speaking to the BBC recently about the “anti-reactionary thinking” lawDaily NK editor-in-chief Lee Sang Yong said the goal was to “shatter” any fascination or interest in South Korean culture and way of life that might create a “sense of resistance” in the younger generation.
While the latest efforts to quell foreign influence aren’t new, Lee told Insider he looks rather extreme. “We all want to see North Korea open up,” she said. “So when you see them tighten up like that, it’s very disturbing.”