Soap-Opera Diplomacy: North Koreans Crave Banned Videos

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David Guttenfelder / AP

A North Korean man smokes a cigarette in front of a poster for the 11th Pyongyang International Film Festival in North Korea in September 2008

For Myung Chul Jin, 43, a recently defected North Korean living in Seoul, it hasn't been an easy year. The government executed his uncle last year for subversion against the state, the former police commander says, and his constant worry for his family still living in the North sends his gaze to the floor of his office in Seoul. But there were good times in Pyongyang too: evenings with friends when they watched smuggled South Korean soap operas and American films like Superman Returns and Titanic. "North Koreans love foreign dramas," says Myung, using an alias to protect his family living in the North. "Many people watch them in secret, even when the police have tried to stop it."

In recent years, bootlegged South Korean dramas have been flooding into the northern neighbor — part of a recent explosion across Asia in the popularity of South Korean TV shows and music known as the Korean Wave. On the black market in North Korea, American DVDs go for about 35¢; South Korean ones go for $3.75, because of the higher risk of execution for smuggling them in, according to two recent defectors from Pyongyang. The nation's films and dramas have become so widespread across North Korea that the regime launched a crackdown this fall on North Korean university students, the movies' biggest audience, and smugglers at the Chinese border, charging some with promoting the ideology of the enemy state. "The government is terrified of the ideas North Koreans are getting about the outside world," Myung says. "The people are starting to ask, 'Why are we poor?' And they point to South Korea."

Since the communist North and the South signed an armistice in 1953 that halted the Korean War, the two neighbors have been at loggerheads over issues of censorship. The state-run media in the North has long derided South Korea's "decadent foreign culture and ideals," and has banned nearly all South Korean, American and Japanese films in favor of 1960s Soviet and Chinese films rife with revolutionary ideas. Foreign films are allowed to be shown in some contexts, such as the Pyongyang International Film Festival held every other fall, and in recent weeks state television has occasionally shown Disney films like Snow White, Cinderella and Robin Hood. But a wide selection of foreign films have always been available to the country's élites, having been smuggled in before the 1990s, though never at the rate that happens now. Kim Jong Il, the country's dictator, is said to own a library of more than 20,000 foreign and North Korean films.

The most recent anti-South probe began in September, after authorities caught a group of students in a university computer lab watching a new South Korean disaster film, Haeundae, according to the North Korean Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS), the Seoul-based defectors' organization that Myung now manages. The group says it learned of the arrests from an antigovernment cell at a North Korean university, which they regularly contact to gather information from inside the hermit state. Inspection teams have also been purging border cities where the movies are smuggled in, and even executing some smugglers in public as a warning, according to a July report by the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean government-affiliated think tank.

And while the government has stepped up the number of arrests on smuggling charges and for watching the videos, it has relaxed sentences for offenders who only do the latter. Ten years ago, that particular crime carried a sentence of five years in a prison camp; today, enemy-propaganda watchers are usually handed a sentence of three months or less of unpaid labor, according to two refugees in Seoul. The shift may not have been an ideological one: Myung, who served in the North Korean police just last year, says that the regime made the decision because it couldn't afford to send so many people to prison camps.

Those lighter sentences mean more and more students have started to defy the long-standing ban and get exposed to life outside the North's borders. One defector says that when students are caught, they buy cigarettes for police officers to escape labor sentences, and sometimes even give officers the bootleg to watch themselves. "I used to believe strongly what the government told us — that foreign films are crazy and violent. We used to be terrified of watching South Korean dramas," says one North Korean university student in Seoul, who remains sympathetic to the regime. "But I've opened my mind." At least one student under investigation has lobbied authorities to legalize foreign films with no political message, according to a newsletter by the defectors' group.

Whether or not these rarified, fictional glimpses of their freer and richer neighbor have any real sway over North Korean youth is hard to say. "There are lots of stories on that from the defectors," says Lee Jong Ju, deputy spokesperson of Seoul's Ministry of Unification. "They said they can see [South] Korean soap operas in North Korea, and then that could be one of the reasons they decided to go to South Korea," says Lee. Others contend that while North Koreans may be increasingly curious about the outside world, that doesn't mean they're having fantasies about capitalist life. "It's silly to say North Koreans are so naive that they think South Korean dramas represent actual life in South Korea. They know it's entertainment," says Simon Cockerell, the general manager of Koryo Tours in Beijing, which leads tour groups to North Korea several times each year.

But for Myung, whose organization actively opposes the regime, exposing North Koreans to foreign ways of life is not just a matter of wasting a few hours on a Friday night. "The government can target the distributors, and they can be shot," Myung says, "but the government can never stop people from wanting to see the movies."