SEOUL – Kim Jong-un calls it an “evil cancer” that damages young North Koreans’ “dress, hairstyles, speeches, behavior”. Its state media has warned that it would dismantle North Korea as a damp wall if left unchecked.
After South Korean pop culture gained worldwide fans, they entered the final frontier: North Korea, where its growing influence prompted the leader of the totalitarian state to declare a new culture war to stop it. But even a dictator can have trouble stopping the tide.
In recent months, hardly a day has passed without Mr. Kim or state media against ‘anti-socialist and non-socialist’ influences in his country, especially South Korean films, K-dramas and K-pop videos. As part of a panicked attempt to regain control, Mr. Kim orders his government to wipe out the cultural invasion.
Censorship is anything but an anger dictator’s anger. This comes at a time when the Northern economy is fluttering and its diplomacy has stalled with the West, leaving the country’s youth perhaps more receptive to outside influence, and Mr. Kim’s firm grip on North Korean society is challenging.
“Young North Koreans think they owe nothing to Kim Jong-un,” said Jung Gwang-il, a fugitive from the North who runs a network that smuggles K-pop to North Korea. “He must reaffirm his ideological control over the young people if he does not want to lose the foundation for the future of his family’s dynastic government.”
Mr. Kim’s family has ruled the North for three generations, and the loyalty of millennials in the country has often been tested. They came of age during a famine in the late 1990s, when the government could not provide rations, which left millions dead. Families survived by buying food from unofficial markets with goods smuggled from China, including entertainment from the south.
North Korean state propaganda has long described South Korea as a living hell crawling with beggars. Through the K-dramas, first smuggled on tapes and CDs, young North Koreans have learned that while struggling to get enough food to eat during a famine, people in the South are going on diets to lose weight to lose.
South Korean entertainment is now being smuggled on flash drives from China and the hearts of young North Koreans watching behind closed doors and draped windows have been stolen.
Its presence has become so worrying that North Korea introduced a new law last December. According to lawmakers in Seoul, briefed by government intelligence officials, and internal North Korean documents, labor camps are being held for five to 15 years for people who watch or have access to South Korean entertainment. smuggled out by Daily NK, a website located in Seoul. The previous maximum penalty for such crimes was five years of hard labor.
Those who place material in the hands of North Koreans could face even harsher punishments, including the death penalty. The new law also calls for up to two years of hard labor for those who ‘speak, write or sing’ in South Korean style.
The introduction of the law was followed by months of new prescriptions from Mr. Kim who warned about outside influence. In February, he ordered all provinces, cities and provinces to eradicate a “ruthless” growing capitalist trend. In April, he warned that ‘a serious change is taking place in the’ ideological and spiritual state ‘of young North Koreans. And last month, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun warned that North Korea would “crumble” if such influences increased.
“For Kim Jong-un, the cultural invasion from South Korea has gone beyond an acceptable level,” said Jiro Ishimaru, editor-in-chief of Asia Press International, a website in Japan that monitors North Korea. “If left unchecked, he fears his people will begin to see the South as an alternative Korea to replace the North.”
Computers, text messages, music players and notebooks are now being searched for South Korean content and accents, according to North Korean government documents smuggled out by Asia Press. Women in North Korea, for example, are supposed to call their appointments ‘comrades’. Instead, many began calling them ‘grandpa’, or honey, as women in K-dramas. Mr. Kim called the language ‘perverted’.
The relatives of those caught mimicking the baby accent from the South in their daily conversations or text messages could be expelled from the cities as a warning, the documents read.
This is not the first time that North Korea has challenged an ‘ideological and cultural invasion’. All radios and televisions are set to receive government broadcasts only. The government has blocked its people from using the global internet. Disciplinary groups patrol the streets and stop men with long hair and women with skirts that are considered too short, or considered pants too tight. According to the only hair dye, black is available Russian Embassy in Pyongyang.
But it may be too late to leave the cracks behind in the nineties. Mr. Jung (58) remembers seeing ‘J-Jealousy’, a K-drama about young love, when he was still in North Korea and felt a culture shock. “On North Korean TV, it was all about the party and the leader,” he said. “You’ve never seen such a natural display of human emotions as a man and woman kissing.”
In a recording that the Institute of Peace and Association Studies of the National Seoul of 116 people who fled North Korea in 2018 or 2019, nearly half said they “regularly” watched South Korean entertainment in the North. A current favorite, Mr. Jung said, ‘Crash Landing on you, ”A show about a paragliding South Korean heir who is carried across the border by a sudden gust of wind and falls in love with a North Korean officer.
Mr. Kim once seemed more flexible to the culture from the outside. In 2012, he was shown on state television with a thumbs up for a group of girls in miniskirts playing the theme song of ‘Rocky’ while Mickey and Minnie Mouse adorn characters in the perimeter. Government sanctioned kiosks in Pyongyang for sale Disney favorites such as “The Lion King” and “Cinderella.” Restaurants screened foreign films, concerts and TV shows, the Russian Embassy report in 2017.
But Mr. Kim’s confidence weakened after his diplomacy with former US President Donald J. Trump collapsed in 2019 without lifting the crushing economic sanctions. He has since promised to lead his country through the constraints by building an ‘independent economy’ that is less dependent on trade with the outside world. Then came the pandemic, which deepened the North’s economic problems.
“The economic situation in the North is the worst since Kim Jong-un took office a decade ago,” he said. Ishimaru said. “When people are hungry, crime rates could rise. He must tighten control to ward off social unrest. ”
North Korea has insisted on urging its people to notify others watching K-dramas, according to documents smuggled by Daily NK. But many decided to look the other way and even turn down their neighbors in front of the police raids, the documents read. “The phenomenon of spreading impure publications and propaganda does not disappear, but continues.”