North Korean leader Kim Jong-un continued his crackdown this week on Western cultural influence seeping into his country, threatening citizens caught dealing in or listening to “perverse” South Korean K-pop music with years in labor camps or death.
According to documents smuggled out of the Stalinist state by the Seoul, South Korea-based news outlet Daily NK and reported first by The New York Times on Friday, the 37-year-old Kim is ramping up punishment for so-called cultural violations to include 15-year labor camp sentences and executions.
In the documents, which were subsequently publicized by South Korean lawmakers, Kim, who appears to have lost a lot of weight recently, called cultural influences from South Korea and the West, in general, a “vicious cancer” that produced a corrupting influence on North Korean millennials’ “attire, hairstyles, speeches, [and] behaviors.”
The new laws were introduced in December. The 15-year labor camp sentence was increased from five years, reports noted.
Smugglers of K-pop materials could also face execution, according to the documents, while anyone who is caught writing, speaking, or singing in “South Korean style” faces two years in a labor camp.
The New York Post reported that in May, a North Korean citizen was executed via firing squad after he was caught selling bootlegged South Korean music and entertainment materials.
That said, entertainment from south of the border has regularly been smuggled into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — North Korea’s formal name — first in cassette form but then in thumb drives originating in China.
But in recent months, Kim has increasingly cracked down on his anti-capitalist actions and rhetoric as his citizens are increasingly exposed to life outside the so-called “Hermit Kingdom,” the Daily Mail adds.
In February, for instance, Kim ordered all government officials in all provinces, cities, and jurisdictions to be on the lookout for capitalist influences and to move against them when found. North Korean state media warned at the time that K-pop could even be responsible for causing the country to “crumble like a damp wall” if it is allowed to proliferate.
But the music ban comes at a particularly bad time for Kim’s rule; his COVID-19 lockdown reportedly eroded an already weak economy that has been mismanaged for decades and harmed by U.S.-led sanctions due to the regime’s nuclear weapons development.
Experts say tough times in the North coupled with increasing exposure to the liberal democratic — and much better off — South could spark a rebellion against Kim, whose family has ruled the country with an iron fist for generations.
“To Kim Jong Un, the cultural invasion from South Korea has gone beyond a tolerable level,” Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of Asia Press International, a Japanese outlet focusing on North Korea, told The Post.
“If this is left unchecked, he fears that his people might start considering the South an alternative Korea to replace the North,” Ishimaru added.
Signs of South Korean influence are nevertheless seeping into North Korean society. For instance, The Post noted, young North Korean women increasingly refer to boyfriends using the term “oppa,” or Korean for “honey” — popularized in South Korean dramas — rather than “comrade,” which is mandated by the Kim regime.
The seeds of discontent have been sown as well. North Korean millennials who grew up food-deprived and starving during perpetual famines in the 1990s have seen bootlegged South Korean content in which their democratic opposites have discussed dieting to lose weight.
Kim’s brutal crackdown may not be too little, too late to stop a major cultural shift, however. A recent survey of 116 North Korean defectors reportedly found that almost half “frequently” enjoyed content from South Korea, the Times reported.
“Young North Koreans think they owe nothing to Kim Jong Un,” Jung Gwang-il, a North Korean defector who smuggles K-pop content into his former country, told the Times . “He must reassert his ideological control on the young if he doesn’t want to lose the foundation for the future of his family’s dynastic rule.”
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