Kim Jong Un trying to cleanse South Korean TV films

It seems that Kim Jong Un is getting serious about ideological threats – at least, this is what a number of reliable and unconnected sources have claimed to be the case in the last few months.

Indeed, a significant number of North Korean contacts have complained, that since last year it has become far more dangerous for them to watch foreign movies and TV at home.
Indeed, I have come across someone who said that in the last few months a number of longtime fans of South Korean TV dramas have abandoned have overcome their addiction.

They had no choice: such addiction suddenly became far more dangerous than before, and many clandestine mean that they had previous used to acquire TV shows had suddenly been interrupted.

There are even rumors in Pyongyang that some prominent wholesalers of DVDs have been apprehended and executed in public.

Frankly, my experience has taught me to be somewhat skeptical of such statements: if such things are rumored in Pyongyang, this does not necessarily mean they are the case.
Many rumors are just that, hearsay. Nonetheless, such stories, taken together, tell us a lot about the current mood inside the country.

Technically, South Korean and foreign movies and TV shows have always been strictly banned in North Korea. The North Korean police even had a permanent task force (Task force 114), the major mission of which was to uncover and disrupt the distribution networks of the South Korean and, more broadly speaking, foreign video productions.

The current edition of the North Korean criminal code stipulates that one can be sentenced to two years in prison if one is found guilty of possessing, watching, selling or buying unauthorized video materials (the latter term nearly always means South Korean movies and TV shows).

Nonetheless, until recently, these bans were only enforced sporadically, and even then, usually without much enthusiasm. Task force 114 personnel, as well as other police agents, were often more interested in extracting bribes from merchants than actually enforcing the law. Thus, people were left to watch South Korean movies with a measure of impunity. Such movies were nearly always recorded onto DVDs or USB sticks in China. Chinese entrepreneurs were the main people involved in the business. They understood that in North Korea such forbidden fruit was likely to get a good price.

While the passion for foreign DVDs is pretty universal in North Korea, some North Koreans are more inclined to indulge in this pursuit. South Korean DVDs are especially popular amongst the young and educated – including young party officials, military officers and police officials – as well as the residents of Pyongyang and cities near the border with China.

They tend to be far less common in the inland areas of North Korea, but, after all, the inner areas of the country are significantly less important politically and significantly more detached from the outside world.

It is quite clear why the North Korean people like to watch South Korean TV shows. When I have discussed it with North Koreans, they almost unanimously said that South Korean videos are interesting because “they are not political”. Of course, one can disagree with such statements because some political messages are necessarily and unavoidably present within any cultural product.

Rather, what North Koreans mean by this is that there is an absence of the crude ideological propaganda, which permeates North Korean movies. To simplify things a bit, the average North Korean movie tells the audience why protagonists love the Kim dynasty and hate the US imperialists while South Korean film protagonists tell the audience why they love (or hate) each other.

However, the North Korean government has not been much impressed by the booming popularity of South Korean movies. They correctly understand such things as dangerous. Indeed, every aficionado of South Korean TV dramas understands perfectly well that South Korean people are fortunate enough to live in a rich country, and that they also enjoy a great degree of personal freedom. A person who regularly watches South Korean TV shows or films is unlikely to believe much of what their country’s official propaganda says. From the point of view of North Korea’s leadership, this is a worrying and dangerous phenomenon.

It is still remarkable, though, that it is was Kim Jong Un, not his father (under whose watch this movie boom began) who decided to try and ‘cleanse’ his country of South Korean TV shows and films. This campaign agrees pretty well with what little is known about Kim Jong Un’s attitude to ideological matters.

For example, it was under his watch that North Korea managed to reestablish control over North Korea’s border with China, gradually diminishing opportunities for the spread of goods and ideas. Kim Jong Un has also been successful in his crackdown on the use of Chinese mobile phones, which allowed Koreans in borderland areas to freely communicate with the outside world.

It seems that Kim Jong Un understands something that his father either failed to understand or chose to ignore: the great danger of information exposure. Information control is one of the cornerstones of the entire North Korean system, a system the legitimacy of which has always rested on its ability to deliver material prosperity to its people.

If it becomes clear to North Koreans just how poor they are compared to their neighbors, the system will become unsustainable. Thus, information control is vital to keep the country stable and the Kim in charge. Paradoxically, such an intense campaign to root out sources of ideological “contamination” do not necessarily mean that Kim Jong Un does not want to reform the country.

On the contrary, if he plans to reform the country, he surely must build up the regime’s legitimacy and do something to stop the spread of materials that threaten his grip on power. This is exactly what he is doing.

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