SEOUL – Kim Jong Un called it a “vicious cancer” that corrupts “the clothes, hairstyles, speeches, behavior of young North Koreans.” His state media warns that if they are not repealed, it will cause North Korea to “collapse like a wet wall.”
After gaining fans around the world, South Korean pop culture entered the last frontier: North Korea, where its growing influence prompted the leader of the totalitarian state to declare a new cultural war to stop it. But even a dictator can have trouble holding back the tide.
In recent months, hardly a day has passed without Mr Kim or the state media opposing the “anti-socialist and non-socialist”
Censorship is anything but the dictator’s angry hysteria. This comes at a time when the North’s economy is slowing and its diplomacy with the West is stalling, perhaps leaving the country’s youth more receptive to outside influence and challenging Mr Kim’s strong influence on North Korean society.
“Young North Koreans don’t think they owe anything to Kim Jong Un,” said Jung Guang-il, a North Korean deserter who runs a K-pop smuggling network in North Korea. “He must regain his ideological control over the youth if he does not want to lose the foundations for the future of his family’s dynastic rule.”
Mr. Kim’s family has ruled the North for three generations, and millennial loyalty in the country has often been tested. They came of age during a famine in the late 1990s, when the government was unable to provide rations, killing millions. Families survive by buying food from unofficial markets stocked with goods smuggled in from China, including entertainment from the south.
North Korean state propaganda has long described South Korea as a living hell crawling with beggars. Through K-dramas, smuggled on cassettes and CDs for the first time, young North Koreans learned that while struggling to find enough food to eat during starvation, people in the South went on diets to lose weight.
South Korean entertainment is now being smuggled on flash drives from China, stealing the hearts of young North Koreans looking behind closed doors and curtained windows.
His presence became so alarming that North Korea passed a new law last December. He called for five to 15 years in labor camps for people watching or owning South Korean entertainment, according to Seoul lawmakers who were informed by government intelligence officials and domestic North Korean documents smuggled out of the Seoul-based Daily NK. The previous maximum penalty for such crimes was five years of hard labor.
Those who hand over material to North Koreans can be subjected to even harsher punishments, including the death penalty. The new law also requires up to two years of hard work for those who “speak, write or sing in South Korean style.”
The introduction of the law was followed by months of new dictates by Mr Kim warning of outside influence. In February, he ordered all provinces, cities, and counties to “ruthlessly” eliminate growing capitalist tendencies. In April, he warned that there was a “serious change” in the “ideological and mental state” of young North Koreans. And last month, the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper warned that North Korea would “disintegrate” if such influence spread.
“For Kim Jong-un, the cultural invasion of South Korea has exceeded acceptable levels,” said Jiro Ishimaru, editor-in-chief of Asia Press International, a website in Japan that monitors North Korea. “If this is not repealed, he fears that his people may begin to see the South as an alternative Korea to replace the North.”
Computers, text messages, music players and laptops are now being sought for South Korean content and highlights, according to North Korean government documents illegally exported by Asia Press. Women in North Korea, for example, should call their dates “comrades.” Instead, many people began to call them “opa” or honey, as women do in K-dramas. Mr Kim called the language “perverse”.
The families of those caught “imitating a puppet accent” from the South in their daily conversations or text messages could be expelled from the cities as a warning, the documents said.
This is not the first time North Korea has fought an “ideological and cultural invasion.” All radios and televisions are preset to receive only government broadcasts. The government is blocking its people from using the global Internet. Disciplinary teams patrol the streets, stopping men with long hair and women in skirts who are considered too short or pants considered 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 in the 1990s. Jung, 58, remembers watching Jealousy, a K-drama about young love when he was still in North Korea and experiencing 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 manifestation of human emotions as kissing a man and a woman.”
In a survey conducted by the Institute for Peace and Reunification at Seoul National University among 116 people who fled North Korea in 2018 or 2019, nearly half said they “often” watched South Korean entertainment while in North Korea. . A current favorite, Mr Jung said, was Crash Landing on You, a show about a South Korean heiress paraglider who was carried across the border by a sudden gust of wind and fell in love with a North Korean army officer.
Mr. Kim used to seem more flexible to outside culture. In 2012, he was shown on state television, squeezing the thumbs of a girl in a mini skirt, performing a themed song from “Rocky” while the characters of Mickey and Minnie Mouse prayed nearby. Government-sanctioned pavilions in Pyongyang sell Disney favorites such as The Lion King and Cinderella. The restaurants showed foreign films, concerts and TV shows, the Russian embassy said in 2017.
But Mr Kim’s confidence has waned since his diplomacy with Donald J. Trump, the former US president, collapsed in 2019 without lifting crushing economic sanctions. He has since vowed to lead his country through restrictions by building an “independent economy” that is less dependent on trade with the outside world. Then the pandemic struck, deepening the economic problems of the North.
“The economic situation in the North is the worst since Kim Jong-un took office a decade ago,” Mr Ishimaru said. “If people are hungry, the crime rate can rise. He must tighten controls to deter social unrest. “
North Korea has resorted to calling on its people to inform others who are watching K-dramas, according to documents smuggled out by the Daily NK. But many have decided to look the other way, even giving tips to their neighbors before police attacks, the documents said. “The phenomenon of the spread of unclean publications and propaganda does not disappear, but continues.”