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Explainer: Understanding North Korea's brutal ban on South Korean content

By Tanvi Gupta Jan 28, 2024

What's the story

South Korean entertainment has captivated audiences globally, but its influence has met a stark barrier in North Korea due to the country's strict authoritarian government. Recently, a rare footage showed two teenagers sentenced to 12 years of "hard labor" for watching K-dramas. This highlights the regime's firm grip on controlling external influences. Let's understand why North Korea censors foreign media, particularly from South Korea.


Why does this story matter?

The recently surfaced footage—probably filmed in 2022—isn't the first disturbing case to capture global attention. In 2022, reports emerged detailing the public execution of two North Korean teens for watching and illegally distributing K-dramas. In 2021, several minors faced imprisonment for watching Crash Landing on You—a popular Netflix series depicting the tumultuous love story between a South Korean heiress and a North Korean officer.


Historical, political, ideological divide between North and South

The animosity between North and South Korea dates back to the division of the Korean Peninsula after World War II in 1948. The Korean War (1950-53) intensified tensions, resulting in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)—a heavily fortified buzzer zone separating the two nations.

Ideologically, North Korea follows a communist system, while the South adopted a democratic system. Despite diplomatic efforts, a comprehensive resolution remains elusive.

Economic differences

Economic contrasts between two nations

North Korea was once one of the most developed industrial areas in East Asia. However, the nation faced economic decline in the 1990s after the Soviet Union's collapse cut off aid, resulting in grinding poverty. China became its primary trading partner. In contrast, South Korea became Asia's fourth-largest economy, boasting a GDP per capita comparable to European nations, with a thriving cultural export industry.

Major reason

Perilous allure of South Korean dramas, films

A North Korean defector told BBC Korea, "In North Korea, we learn that South Korea lives much worse...but when you watch South Korean dramas, it's a completely different world...

Authorities are wary of that." Interestingly, a study by Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification found that 80% of surveyed 149 defectors had been exposed to South Korean movies or songs before fleeing.

Other reasons

Other prominent reasons to ban K-dramas, films, music

Per reports, North Korean movies emphasize loyalty to the supreme leader and the Workers' Party of Korea, with indications of "the state before love." Meanwhile, K-dramas depict a world beyond the state's influence. Experts believe that the increasing exposure to South Korean culture might cause North Koreans to view it as an alternative to their own culture and subsequently cause fear among the leaders.

Shifting stance

Kim Jong-un's shifting stance on liberalization

Upon assuming power in 2011, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un initially embraced a more liberal approach, even forming an all-girl band. However, tensions escalated with Pyongyang's missile launches in 2016-17. He subsequently adopted a conservative stance, cracking down on technology used for smuggling South Korean films, dramas, and music. Relations improved in 2018—with promises to end the Korean War—but talks faltered in 2019.


What is Nortg's anti-reactionary thought law?

Introduced in 2020, North Korea's "anti-reactionary thought law" significantly tightens controls on external information entry, including news and foreign cultural materials. It deems various acts illegal, including listening to, recording, or disseminating foreign radio broadcasts and importing/sharing "impure" foreign recordings, primarily South Korean content. Violators can be sentenced to five to 15 years in labor camps or even death, depending on the crime severity.


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