Last month, a North Korean citizen was reportedly sentenced to death by firing squad under the charge of having smuggled and sold a USB stick containing copies of the South Korean Netflix mega-hit series, “Squid Game.” This had unfortunate consequences for many people: a life sentence was given to a student who bought the USB stick, six students who watched the series received five years of hard labor, and even teachers and school staff were sacked and banished. In another incident, a soldier in his 20s was arrested for performing a dance by world-famous South Korean pop group BTS. These incidents give rise to questions about the motivations and logic behind the North Korean regime’s continued repression preventing its citizens from being exposed to South Korean culture.
The North Korean regime’s repression of people who possess, exchange, or watch foreign content comes as no surprise. Since its formation in 2004, a government unit, the Surveillance Bureau Group 109 (Sangmu 109), has practiced almost complete surveillance of individual’s electronic devices and cracked down on the possession, trade, and watching of foreign dramas and movies, which are labelled as “illegal.”
The regime’s control has been quite consistent. The regime promulgated the Law on Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture in 2020. The law stipulates up to 15 years in a labor camp or capital punishment for the possession or distribution of foreign content. The key objective of the law is to control the thoughts and behaviors of the population; the law regards foreign drama series, movies, songs, and videos as “reactionary” or “subversive.”
In 2021, the state-run newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, publicly ordered the young generation to not follow South Korean fashion or hairstyles, or even to use their words, and Kim Jong Un labeled K-pop a “vicious cancer.” The newspaper explicitly warned that an ideological and cultural fight can be likened to a war without gunfire, possibly having more serious impacts on society than a war conducted on the battlefield.
Whereas North Korea has maintained a relatively unaltered approach to South Korean culture, inter-Korean political relations have gone through a cycle of rosy reconciliations, dismay, tensions, and aggression over the last few years, driven by multiple political, economic, and diplomatic factors. The current South Korean government has taken a peaceable stance toward North Korea rather than pursuing antagonistic approaches, having been notably committed to dialogue and reconciliation. The Moon Jae-in government has strived to achieve concrete outcomes such as reopening the inter-Korean hotline and facilitating an end-of-war declaration. Considering the consistent control and surveillance and setting aside the bilateral political dynamics, it is unconvincing to assess North Korean controls of South Korean culture as reflecting a provisional retaliation against or hatred of South Korea.
Instead, the North Korean regime is concerned about foreign content serving as a seed of popular demands for greater individual freedoms in personal life and adoption of a market economy, which may trigger public grievances with the reality of North Korea. Individual — or, in a worse scenario for the regime, collective — political action is what the regime strives to avoid. Making use of its dictatorial political power to comprehensively control the propaganda affecting the everyday lives of people, combined with severe punishments, the North Korean regime has a firm grip on power, enabling it to formulate society’s norms and conventions and to control the thoughts and behaviors of the people.
The regime’s repression concerning South Korean culture is not limited to a crackdown on illicit smuggling and trade, but reflects the regime’s logic that equates foreign culture with a threat to its stability. By blocking cultural content from outside North Korea, the regime strives to nip in the bud any increased awareness of individual freedoms presented in foreign dramas and movies. In this sense, the regime’s oppressive measures need to be interpreted as the result of internal concerns over regime stability more than the provisional consequences of tensions or thaws in relations with South Korea.
North Korea has taken a consistent stance on South Korean culture by politicizing South Korean cultural at its discretion. As long as the North Korean regime sticks to a containment policy to hold absolute control over information and cultural content, it is expected to maintain its rigidity in control over the influx of South Korean culture, as Pyongyang perceives it as a threat to stability regardless of inter-Korean political dynamics.