SEOUL, South Korea – Kim Jong Un called it a “vicious cancer” that corrupts the “dress, hairstyles, speeches and behaviors” of young North Koreans. State media warned that if left unchecked, North Korea “will collapse like a wet wall.”
After gaining a following around the world, South Korean pop culture has entered the final frontier – North Korea, where its growing influence has prompted the leader of the totalitarian state to declare a new culture war to stop it. But even a dictator can have trouble stemming the tide.
In recent months, hardly a day has passed without Kim or the state media criticizing the “anti-socialist and non-socialist” influences spreading in their country, especially Korean movies, Korean dramas, and K-pop videos. South. As part of a terrified attempt to reassert control, Kim ordered his government to eradicate the cultural invasion.
Censorship is anything but the tantrum of a grumpy dictator. It comes at a time when the North Korean economy is reeling and its diplomacy with the West has stalled, perhaps leaving the country’s youth more receptive to outside influence and challenging Kim’s firm hold on North Korean society.
“Young North Koreans think they owe nothing to Kim Jong Un,” said Jung Gwang-il, a defector from the North who runs a network that smuggles K-pop to North Korea. “He must reassert his ideological control over the youth if he does not want to lose the foundations of the future of his family’s dynastic rule.”
The Kim family has ruled the north for three generations, and the loyalty of millennials in the country has often been put to the test. They came of age during a famine in the late 1990s, when the government was unable to provide rations, resulting in the death of millions. Families survived by buying food from unofficial markets stocked with goods smuggled from China, including entertainment smuggled from the south.
North Korean state propaganda had long described South Korea as a living hell riddled with beggars. Through K-dramas, first smuggled on tapes and CDs, young North Koreans learned that while struggling to find enough food to eat during a famine, people in the south were on diets to lose weight.
South Korean entertainment is now smuggled on USB sticks from China, stealing the hearts of young North Koreans who stare behind closed doors and curtained windows.
Their presence has become so concerning that North Korea enacted a new law in December. Calls for five to 15 years in labor camps for people who watch or own South Korean entertainment, according to lawmakers in Seoul who were briefed by government intelligence officials, and internal North Korean documents smuggled out by Daily NK, a website based in Seoul. The previous maximum punishment for such crimes was five years of forced labor.
Those who put material in the hands of North Koreans can face even harsher punishments, including the death penalty. The new law also requires 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 Kim warning of outside influence. In February, he ordered all provinces, cities and counties to put an end “without mercy” to the growing capitalist tendencies. In April, he warned that “a serious change” was taking place in the “mental and ideological state” of young North Koreans. And last month, the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun warned that North Korea would “collapse” if those influences proliferated.
“For Kim Jong Un, the cultural invasion of South Korea has gone beyond a tolerable level,” said Jiro Ishimaru, editor-in-chief of Asia Press International, a website in Japan that monitors North Korea. “If this is not controlled, he fears that his people may begin to see the South as an alternative to Korea to replace the North.”
Computers, text messages, music players and laptops are now being searched 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 darling, as women do in Korean dramas. Kim has called the language “perverted.”
The families of those caught “imitating the puppet accent” of the South in their daily conversations or text messages could be expelled from cities as a warning, according to the documents.
This is not the first time that North Korea has lashed out at an “ideological and cultural invasion.” All radios and televisions are preconfigured to receive government broadcasts only. The government has prevented its people from using the global internet. Disciplinary squads patrol the streets, detaining men with long hair and women in skirts deemed too short or pants too tight. The only hair dye available is black, according to the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang.
But it may be too late to repair the cracks left during the 1990s. Jung, 58, remembers watching “Jealousy,” a Korean drama about young love, when he was still in North Korea and was experiencing culture shock. . “On North Korean television, it was all about the party and the leader,” he said. “You have never seen such a natural display of human emotions as a man and a woman kissing.”
In a survey conducted by the Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies of 116 people who fled North Korea in 2018 or 2019, nearly half said they had “frequently” watched South Korean entertainment while they were there. in the north. A current favorite, Jung said, was “Crash Landing on You,” a show about a South Korean heiress on a paraglider who is blown across the border by a sudden gust of wind and falls in love with a North Korean army officer.
Kim had once again seemed flexible towards the outside culture. In 2012, she appeared on state television giving the go-ahead to a group of miniskirted girls performing the title track to “Rocky” while the characters of Mickey and Minnie Mouse strolled nearby. Government-licensed kiosks in Pyongyang sold Disney favorites like “The Lion King” and “Cinderella.” The restaurants showed foreign movies, concerts and television shows, the Russian Embassy reported in 2017.
But Kim’s confidence weakened after his diplomacy with Donald Trump, the former US president, collapsed in 2019 without the lifting of crushing economic sanctions. Since then, he has vowed to lead his country through the restrictions by building a “self-sufficient economy” that is less dependent on trade with the outside world. Then the pandemic struck, compounding the North’s economic woes.
“The economic situation in the North is the worst since Kim Jong Un took office a decade ago,” Ishimaru said. “If people are hungry, crime rates could go up. It must reinforce control to deter social unrest. “
North Korea has resorted to urging its people to report on others watching K-dramas, according to documents smuggled out by Daily NK. But many have decided to look the other way, even warning their neighbors before the police raids, according to the documents. “The phenomenon of the distribution of impure publications and propaganda is not disappearing, it is continuing.”
This article originally appeared on The New York Times.
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