A culture war is brewing in North Korea. It shows Kim Jong Un’s deepest fear

Kim Jong Un, along with newly elected party leaders, in Pyongyang on Jan. 12. (Str/AFP/Getty Images)
Kim Jong Un, along with newly elected party leaders, in Pyongyang on Jan. 12. (Str/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did something none of his predecessors dared to do: He admitted that his country is in crisis. A grim reality may have left him little choice. The hermit kingdom is reeling from sanctions, natural disasters, famine and the covid-19 pandemic. And since life in North Korea looks likely to get even worse in the months ahead, the regime is doubling down on its efforts to prevent the flow of outside information into the country.

At the end of 2020, North Korea passed a slew of new laws to rein in what it calls “reactionary ideology and culture.” Key details of these laws, set to go into effect last month, recently emerged. They inadvertently reveal one of North Korea’s chief concerns: an influx of South Korean media. Reportedly, the new measures threaten anything from up to 15 years of hard labor for possessing South Korean books or movies to up to two years for just speaking with a South Korean accent. The laws even plan to hold parents accountable, calling for fines of roughly $111 to $222 for fathers and mothers who “failed to raise their children properly.” (One estimate puts the average monthly salary for North Koreans at about $4.) Distribution of foreign materials may warrant the worst punishment of all: death.

The regime has cause for concern. A 2019 study of 200 defectors showed that more than 90 percent had watched foreign or South Korean media before they defected. South Korean dramas pose a particular problem. Not only do they depict life in a wealthier, freer country, but also they threaten the fabric of state-sponsored culture. Even South Korean accents and slang have become more common as a result of the popularity of dramas in North Korea.

Of note is the South Korean 2019 hit rom-com, “Crash Landing on You,” a drama popular among defectors and North Koreans alike. The film partially takes place in North Korea and has been praised for its honest depictions of North Korean life. A sarcastic phrase from the drama, “You think you’re the general or something?” has reportedly become commonplace, angering North Korean authorities, who believe it is used to mock Kim (often known in the North simply as “the General”). While some criticize the drama for romanticizing life in North Korea, the regime is not too keen on the portrayals of its corrupt leadership, referring to the work as an “atrocious provocation.”

Northerners’ demand for products and information from the South appears to be growing. Some estimate as many as a quarter of North Koreans have mobile phones, many of which were illegally smuggled over the Sino-Korean border. This past October, authorities began a renewed crackdown on foreign cellphone usage by promising forgiveness if citizens and brokers “voluntarily” turned in their phones.

Before covid-19, North Koreans gained access to bootleg dramas via smuggled USBs sold in the jangmadang (private markets at times tolerated by the authorities). And South Korean media consumption has fueled demand for other illicit South Korean imports such as cosmetics, with some women using South Korean beauty products as a silent protest against the regime.

Ironically, totalitarian North Korea is being helped in its new Big Brother campaign by the government of South Korea. Human rights activists on the South Korean side periodically use balloons to send notes containing information about life in South Korea and anti-North Korean messages (as well as Bibles, food, medicine and mini-radios). Pyongyang has long viewed these airdrops as an “act of hostility.” Since defectors cite the leaflets as one catalyst for their defections, it’s no surprise that North Korea takes drastic measures to suppress them. Lately, however, North Korea has succeeded in bullying the South Korean government into playing along. Seoul has now banned the airdropping of materials over North Korea, threatening offenders with up to three years in jail or $27,400 in fines.

The United States and South Korea are favored scapegoats for North Korea’s woes. But as the Great Leader’s admission of trouble in socialist paradise at his own party congress and the ruthless crackdown on information make clear, the power Kim fears most is his people’s.

Olivia Schieber is the senior program manager of the foreign and defense policy department at the American Enterprise Institute.

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