SEOUL – Kim Jong-un called it an “evil cancer” that destroys young North Koreans’ “dress, hairstyles, speeches, behavior.” His state media has warned that if left unchecked, it would cause North Korea to “crumble like a damp wall.”
After winning fans all over the world, South Korean pop culture has entered the final frontier: North Korea, where its growing influence has led the leader of the totalitarian state to declare a new culture war to stop it. But even a dictator may have trouble holding back the tide.
In recent months, hardly a day has gone by without Mr Kim or state media reaching out to “anti-socialist and non-socialist”
Censorship is anything but a huge dictator. It comes at a time when the North’s economy is floundering, and its diplomacy with the West has stalled, perhaps leaving the country’s youth more susceptible to outside influence and challenging Mr. Kim’s firm grip on North Korean society.
“Young North Koreans think they do not owe Kim Jong-un anything,” said Jung Gwang-il, a defector from the Nordic region who runs a network that smuggles K-pop to North Korea. “He must repeat his ideological control over the youth if he does not want to lose the foundation of the future of his family’s dynastic rule.”
Mr. Kim’s family has ruled the Nordic region for three generations, and loyalty from millennia in the country has often been tested. They grew up during a famine in the late 1990s when the government was unable to provide rations and caused millions to die. Families survived by buying food from unofficial markets filled with goods smuggled from China, including hind-legged entertainment from the south.
North Korea’s state propaganda had long described South Korea as a living hell crawling with beggars. Through the 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 went on diets to lose weight.
South Korean entertainment is now smuggled on flash drives from China, stealing the hearts of young North Koreans looking behind closed doors and draped windows.
Its presence has become so worrying that North Korea passed a new law last December. It calls for five to 15 years in labor camps for people watching or possessing South Korean entertainment, according to Seoul lawmakers, who were briefed by government intelligence officials and internal North Korean documents smuggled out of Daily NK, a Seoul-based website. The previous maximum penalty for such crimes was five years of hard work.
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 work 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, who warned 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, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun warned that North Korea would “crumble” if such an influence spread.
“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 this is not highlighted, he fears that his people may begin to consider 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 of Asia Press. Women in North Korea, for example, should call their dates “buddy.” Instead, many have begun to call them “oppa” or treasure, as women do in K-dramas. Sir. Kim has called the language “perverted.”
The families of those caught “imitating the puppet accent” from the south in their daily conversations or text messages could be deported from cities as a warning, the documents said.
This is not the first time North Korea has faced an “ideological and cultural invasion.” All radios and televisions are preset to receive government broadcasts only. The government has blocked its people from using the global internet. Disciplinary troops patrol the streets and stop men with long hair and women with skirts who are considered too short or pants who are considered too tight. The only available hair color is black, according to the Russian embassy in Pyongyang.
But it may be too late to patch up the cracks left behind in the 1990s. Mr. Jung, 58, remembers seeing “Jealousy”, a K-drama about young love when he was still in North Korea and 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 display of human emotion as a man and woman kissing.”
In a survey conducted by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies among 116 people who fled North Korea in 2018 or 2019, nearly half said they “often” had seen South Korean entertainment while in the Nordic region. A current favorite, Mr Jung said, was “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 army officer.
Sir. Kim had once seemed more flexible towards outside culture. In 2012, he appeared on state television, giving thumbs up to a group of girls in miniskirts playing the theme song from “Rocky,” while Mickey and Minnie Mouse figures danced 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 was 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 promised to lead his country through the restrictions by building an “independent economy” that is less dependent on trade with the outside world. Then the pandemic hit and deepened the Nordic economic problems.
“The economic situation in the Nordic region is the worst since Kim Jong-un took office a decade ago,” said Ishimaru. “If people are hungry, crime can rise. 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 out of the Daily NK. But many have decided to look the other way and even tip their neighbors ahead of police raids, the documents say. “The phenomenon of distribution of unclean publications and propaganda does not disappear, but continues.”