North Korea has recently introduced a radical new law that seeks to eradicate any kind of foreign influence, severely punishing anyone caught with movies, clothing, or even using foreign slang. But why?
Yoon Mi-so says that she was 11 years old when she first saw a man executed for being caught in a South Korean drama.
The entire neighborhood of her was ordered to watch.
“If you didn’t, it would be considered treason,” she told the from her home in Seoul.
North Korean guards made sure everyone knew that the penalty for smuggling illegal videos was death.
“I have a strong memory of the man who was blindfolded, I can still see his tears flow from him. That was traumatic for me. His blindfold was completely drenched with tears.
“They put him on a stake, tied him up, and then shot him.”
Imagine being in a constant state of lockdown with no internet, no social media, and only a few state-controlled TV channels designed to tell you what the country’s leaders want you to hear: this is life in North Korea.
And now its leader Kim Jong-Un has cracked down further, introducing a radical new law against what the regime describes as “reactionary thinking.”
Anyone caught by a host of media outlets from South Korea, the United States, or Japan now faces the death penalty. Those caught watching face the prison camp for 15 years.
And it’s not just about what people see.
Recently, Kim wrote a letter in state media calling on the country’s Youth League to crack down on “unpleasant, individualistic, and anti-socialist behavior” among young people. He wants to do away with foreign speech, hairstyles, and clothing that he described as “dangerous poisons.”
An online publication in Seoul with sources in North Korea reported that three teenagers had been sent to a re-education camp for cutting their hair like K-pop idols and folding their pants above the ankles. They cannot verify this account.
This is all because Mr. Kim is in a war that does not involve nuclear weapons or missiles.
Analysts say he is trying to prevent outside information from reaching the North Korean people as living in the country becomes increasingly difficult.
Millions of people are believed to go hungry. Kim wants to make sure they continue to be fed the state’s carefully crafted propaganda, rather than glimpses of life-based on the ostentatious Korean dramas that unfold south of the border in Seoul, one of Asia’s wealthiest cities.
The country has been more isolated from the outside world than ever after sealing its border last year in response to the pandemic. Vital supplies and trade from neighboring China almost came to a standstill. Although some supplies are beginning to arrive, imports are still limited.
This self-imposed isolation has exacerbated an already failing economy in which money is funneled into the regime’s nuclear ambitions. Earlier this year, Kim himself admitted that his people faced “the worst situation we have to overcome.”
NK was the first to get a copy of the law.
“It establishes that if a worker is caught, the head of the factory can be punished, and if a child is problematic, the parents can also be punished. The mutual monitoring system encouraged by the North Korean regime is aggressively reflected in this law, ”editor-in-chief Lee Sang Yong
He says this is intended to “shatter” any dreams or fascination that the younger generation may have about the South.
“In other words, the regime concluded that a sense of resistance could form if cultures from other countries were introduced,” he said.
Choi Jong-hoon, one of the few defectors who managed to leave the country in the last year, that “the more difficult the times, the harsher the regulations, laws and punishments become.”
“Psychologically, when you have a full belly and you watch a South Korean movie, it may be for pleasure. But when there is no food and it is a struggle to live, people get angry. ”
It will work?
The previous crackdown only demonstrated how resourceful people have been at circulating and watching foreign films that are generally smuggled across the border from China.
For several years, dramas have been streamed on USB sticks that are now as “common as rocks,” according to Choi. They are easy to hide and are also password encrypted.
“If you type the wrong password three times in a row, the USB erases its contents. You can even set it to happen after an incorrect password entry if the content is very sensitive.
“There are also many cases where the USB is set to only be viewed once on a given computer, so you can’t connect it to another device or give it to someone else. Only you can see it. So even if you wanted to spread it, you couldn’t. ”
Mi-so remembers how her neighborhood went out of its way to watch movies.
She says they once borrowed a car battery and hooked it up to a generator to get enough electricity to power the television. She remembers seeing a South Korean drama called “Stairway to Heaven.”
This epic love story about a girl who first fights her stepmother and then cancer seems to have been popular in North Korea some 20 years ago.
Choi says this is also when she really took off the fascination for foreign media, helped by cheap CDs and DVDs from China.
The beginning of the repression
But then the Pyongyang regime began to take notice. Mr. Choi recalls that state security raided a university around 2002 and found more than 20,000 CDs.
“This was just a university. Can you imagine how many there were in the whole country? The government was surprised. It was then that they hardened the punishment, ”he said.
Kim Geum-hyok says he was only 16 years old in 2009 when he was captured by guards from a special unit created to hunt down and arrest anyone who shared illegal videos.
He had given a friend some South Korean pop music DVDs that his father had smuggled in from China.
They treated him like an adult and took him to a secret room for questioning, where the guards refused to let him sleep. He says he was repeatedly punched and kicked for four days.
“He was terrified, from Seoul, where he currently lives.
“I thought my world was ending. They wanted to know how I got this video and how many people I showed it to. I couldn’t say that my father brought those DVDs from China. What can I say? He was my father. I didn’t say anything, I just said, “I don’t know, I don’t know. Please let me go.”
Geum-hyok is from one of Pyongyang’s elite families and his father was finally able to bribe the guards to release him. Something that will be nearly impossible under Kim’s new law.
Many of those caught for similar crimes at the time were sent to labor camps. But this was not a sufficient deterrent, so the sentences increased.
“At the beginning, the sentence was around one year in a labor camp, which changed to more than three years in the field. Right now, if you go to labor camps, more than 50% of young people are there because they saw foreign media, ”says Choi.
“If someone looks at two hours of illegal material, it would be three years in a labor camp. This is a big problem.”
Various sources have told us that the size of some of the prison camps in North Korea has expanded in the last year and Mr. Choi believes that tough new laws are taking effect.
“Seeing a movie is a luxury. You need to feed yourself first before you even think about watching a movie. When times are tough even to eat, sending just one family member to a labor camp can be devastating. ”
“We had to take a lot of risks watching those dramas. But no one can beat our curiosity. We wanted to know what was going on in the outside world, ”Geum-hyok told me.
For Guem-hyok, finally learning the truth about his country changed her life. He was one of the few privileged North Koreans allowed to study in Beijing, where he discovered the Internet.
“At first, I couldn’t believe it [North Korea’s descriptions]. I thought western people were lying. Wikipedia lies, how can I believe that? But my heart and my brain were divided.
“So I watched a lot of documentaries about North Korea, I read a lot of newspapers. And then I realized that they are probably true because what they were saying made sense.
“After I realized that a transition was taking place in my brain, it was too late, I couldn’t go back.”
Guem-hyok eventually fled to Seoul.
Mi-so is living her dreams as a fashion consultant. The first thing she did in her new home country visited all the places she saw in Stairway to Heaven.
But stories like hers are getting rarer than ever.
Leaving the country has become nearly impossible with the current “shoot to kill” order at the strictly controlled border. And it’s hard not to expect Kim’s new law to have a more chilling effect.
Choi, who had to leave his family in the north, believes that watching a drama or two will not undo decades of ideological control. But he does believe that North
Koreans suspect that state propaganda is not the truth.
“The people of North Korea have a seed of grievance in their heart, but they don’t know what their grievance points to,” he said.
“It is a tort without direction. My heart aches that they can’t even understand when I tell them. Someone needs to wake them up, enlighten them. “