SEOUL – Kim Jong-un called it a “vicious cancer” that corrupts the “clothes, hairstyles, speeches, behaviors” of young North Koreans. Its state media has warned that North Korea would “crumble like a damp wall” if not controlled.
After gaining fans around the world, South Korean pop culture has reached its 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 can struggle to stem the tide.
In the past few months, hardly a day has passed without Kim or the state media railing against the “anti-socialist and non-socialist” influences spreading in his country, especially South Korean films, K-dramas and K-pop videos. As part of a panic attempt to regain control, Mr. Kim ordered his government to eradicate the cultural invasion.
The censorship is anything but the tantrum of a morose dictator. It comes at a time when the North’s economy has stalled and diplomacy with the West has stalled, perhaps making the country’s youth more receptive to outside influences and challenging Kim’s firm grip on North Korean society.
“Young North Koreans think they owe Kim Jong-un nothing,” said Jung Gwang-il, a northern defector who runs a network that smuggles K-pop into North Korea. “He must regain his ideological control over the youth if he does not want to lose the basis for the future of the dynastic rule of his family.”
Mr Kim’s family has ruled the north for three generations, and the loyalty of millennials in the country has been tested many times. They grew up during a famine in the late 1990s when the government could not provide rations, killing millions. Families survived by buying groceries in unofficial markets stocked with goods smuggled out of China, including illegal entertainment from the south.
North Korean state propaganda had long described South Korea as a hell of beggars. Through the K-dramas, which were first smuggled on tapes and CDs, young North Koreans learned that while the people of the south struggled to find enough food during a famine, they were dieting to lose weight.
South Korean entertainment is now smuggled out of China on flash drives, stealing the hearts of young North Koreans watching from behind closed doors and curtained windows.
Its presence has become so worrying that North Korea passed a new law last December. According to lawmakers in Seoul, briefed by government intelligence officials, and internal North Korean documents smuggled out from Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, five to 15 years are required in labor camps for people who watch or own South Korean entertainment . The previous maximum sentence for such crimes was five years of forced labor.
Anyone who puts material in the hands of North Koreans faces even harsher penalties, 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 Mr. Kim warning of external influences. In February he ordered all provinces, cities and counties to “mercilessly” eradicate the growing capitalist tendencies. In April he warned that the “ideological and mental state” of young North Koreans was “undergoing a serious change”. And last month, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun warned that North Korea would “crumble” if such influences multiply.
“For Kim Jong-un, the cultural invasion of South Korea has exceeded tolerable levels,” said Jiro Ishimaru, editor-in-chief of Asia Press International, a website in Japan that monitors North Korea. “If this goes unchecked, he fears that his people may begin to see the south as an alternative Korea to replace the north.”
According to North Korean government documents smuggled out by Asia Press, computers, text messages, music players and notebooks are now being searched for South Korean content and accents. Women in North Korea, for example, are supposed to call their dates “comrades”. Instead, many have started calling her “oppa” or honey, as women do in K-dramas. Mr. Kim has called the language “perverse”.
The families of those caught “imitating the puppet accent” from the south in their daily conversations or text messages could be expelled from the cities as a warning, the documents say.
This is not the first time North Korea has taken action against an “ideological and cultural invasion”. All radios and televisions are set to receive government broadcasts only. The government has prevented their people from using the global internet. Disciplinary teams patrol the streets stopping men with long hair and women with skirts that are deemed too short or pants that are deemed too tight. The only hair dye available is black, according to the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang.
But it might be too late to mend the cracks that were left in the 1990s. Mr. Jung, 58, remembers seeing “Jealousy,” a K-drama about young love when he was in North Korea and experienced culture shock. “North Korean television was all about the party and the leader,” he said. “You have never seen such a natural representation of human emotions as a man and a woman kissing.”
In a survey conducted by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University of 116 people who fled North Korea in 2018 or 2019, nearly half said they had “frequently” watched South Korean entertainment in the north. A current favorite, Jung said, is “Crash Landing on You,” a show about a South Korean paragliding heir who is carried across the border in a sudden gust of wind and falls in love with a North Korean army officer.
Mr. Kim had once appeared to be more flexible towards foreign cultures. In 2012, he was featured on state television giving a thumbs up to a group of girls in miniskirts playing the theme song of “Rocky” while Mickey and Minnie Mouse characters pranced nearby. Government-approved kiosks in Pyongyang sold Disney favorites such as The Lion King and Cinderella. Restaurants showed foreign films, concerts and TV shows, the Russian embassy reported in 2017.
But Mr Kim’s confidence weakened after his diplomacy with former American President Donald J. Trump collapsed in 2019 without lifting of devastating economic sanctions. Since then, he has vowed to lead his country through the restrictions by building a “self-sufficient economy” less dependent on trade with the outside world. Then the pandemic struck and exacerbated the north’s economic troubles.
“The economic situation in the north is the worst since Kim Jong-un took office a decade ago,” said Ishimaru. “If people go hungry, crime rates could rise. He must tighten controls to prevent social unrest. “
According to documents smuggled by Daily NK, North Korea has asked its people to inform about others who are watching K-Dramas. But many have decided to look the other way and even give their neighbors a clue before police raids, the documents say. “The phenomenon of the spread of impure publications and propaganda does not go away, but continues.”