K-drama (and K-pop) may have hit a global stride in recent years but ironically enough, it’s been long banned in North Korea. There, consumption of the medium is a crime punishable by death.
In 2022, reports circulated online that two North Korean teens were publicly executed for watching and distributing K-dramas. Just a year earlier, several minors were also sent to prison after being caught watching Crash Landing on You, a hit series that told the turbulent love story between a South Korean heiress and a North Korean officer.
Infamous for its rigid, authoritarian government, the North—or at least the powers that be controlling it—have taken great measures to suppress the influx of South Korean dramas, and other influential foreign media, from breaking through its impregnable walls. The strict ban on any outside content is to ensure its citizens’ loyalty to the country’s ideals.
The government’s worries are far from ludicrous. For years, they’ve been waging a war on defiant smugglers intent on distributing foreign CDs and DVDs to interested locals who clandestinely binge-watch these prohibited shows and movies at night with their curtains drawn.
Some might argue that these are just harmless fictional shows and movies at the end of the day, but the impact of media is unquestionable. In a study by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification, they found that in a group of 149 North Korean defectors “more than eight in 10 had been exposed to South Korean movies or songs before fleeing the North.”
Other defectors who’ve fled the country have continued to make a business out of stealing foreign content, particularly South Korean soap operas, into the North. Jang Se-yul, a former North Korean math professor-turned-defector explained to The New York Times that he and his group do so in hope that the content can “help foster anti-government movements.” He continued, “That’s why the North Korean authorities are so desperate to stop them from spreading.”
Around 2020, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stepped up the government’s efforts to bar foreign influence from penetrating the country. An “anti-reactionary thought” law was reportedly imposed so that citizens would not only be punished for listening to or watching outside media, but they would also face stiff fines for adapting South Korean slang words or terms into their speech.
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