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Jan 22, 2024, 6:00am EST
securityEast Asia
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Why North Korea fears the K-wave

Insights from 38 North, Radio Free Asia, and NK News

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K-Drama being filmed
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The News

Rare footage released by the BBC last week appears to show North Korea publicly sentencing two teenagers to 12 years of hard labor for watching K-dramas: South Korean TV shows that are, like all entertainment from the South, strictly banned by Pyongyang.

The video, apparently filmed in 2022, shows an officer handcuffing two 16-year-old boys in front of hundreds at a stadium, chastising them for not “deeply reflecting on their mistakes.” A propaganda narrator warns the audience that despite their age, the boys have “ruined their own future.”

Activists say the harsh sentence and public setting of the trial means that North Korea is intensifying its crackdown on the Korean Wave, or K-wave — the global craze for South Korean media and entertainment — fearing it undermines the country’s authoritarian values.

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Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

Death penalty most extreme punishment for consuming foreign media

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Sources:  
38 North, Radio Free Asia

The North passed a law in 2020 that explicitly mentions the death penalty as a consequence for consuming non-socialist media, which analyst Sang Yong Lee, of the website 38 North, said shows Pyongyang “feels the need to maximize the atmosphere of fear in the country.” In 2022, two North Korean teenagers were executed by firing squad for trying to sell thumb drives containing movies from the South, Radio Free Asia reported. Foreign media consumption has become much more prevalent as technology such as USB sticks and SD cards make it easier for North Koreans — who were previously limited to modified radios or television sets — to watch outlawed foreign movies via TVs or smartphones. Authorities have also installed speakers inside people’s homes to broadcast the personal information of those who have violated the law, which Sang said is meant to “strike fear” into young people who are “at the center of the consumption and spread of outside media content.”

Allowing in the K-wave could boost North Korea’s economic potential

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Sources:  
Radio Free Asia, Voice of America

Pyongyang’s crackdown on the K-wave is so pervasive that speaking with a Seoul accent is now a counterrevolutionary crime punishable by jail time, Radio Free Asia reported last year, with four North Korean students sent to work in a coal mine in late 2022 for speech violations. Yet academics and diplomats agree that North Korea’s cultural isolationism is detrimental to its development, and Pyongyang should ”ride the [Korean] wave" to modernize its economy, according to Voice of America. North Korea “can enjoy the same benefits as [South Korea]” if it allows its citizens to become more familiar with South Korean culture, starting with its dialect, Seoul’s ambassador-at-large on North Korean human rights told VOA.

After a pandemic pause, North Korean elite flee en masse

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Source:  
NK News

The number of North Korean defectors to the South is bouncing back after plummeting to almost zero during the pandemic, when both Pyongyang and Beijing imposed strict border control measures (most defectors cross into China first before seeking new lives in the South). There were 196 defectors in 2023: triple the number of 2022, but still far below pre-COVID levels, according to data from South Korea’s reunification ministry. Activists helping the defectors told NK News that there were a significant number of “elite” defectors last year, inducing diplomats, overseas residents, and international students who were barred from re-entering the country for several years because of COVID controls. Many reconsidered how their lives would look if they returned to North Korea, and instead traveled to the South, according to one activist, who added that. Pyongyang will now be “a lot more conscious about who it sends abroad,” and ensure future diplomats are “more ideologically trained.”.

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