A considerable amount of illegal, black-market entertainment, mostly DVDs with South Korean dramas and K-Pop recordings, make their way to North Korea, mostly smuggled in from China. Radio Free Asia reported: A senior North Korean official “revealed that some 70 percent of the country’s 25 million people actively watch TV shows and movies from the South, sources in the North told RFA. A report in the Washington Post in August 2019 cited a survey by South Korea’s Unification Media Group (UMG) of 200 North Korean escapees living in South Korea, in which 90 percent said they consumed foreign media while living in the North. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 21, 2020]

South Korea, with twice the population and 50 times the GDP of North Korea, is now regarded as a major cultural powerhouse, exporting billions of dollars worth of films, television shows and K-pop songs and gaining popularity in many diverse countries. According to AFP: “Access to foreign pop culture is strictly banned for ordinary people in North Korea, with violators facing hefty fines or jail terms. But a growing stream of pirated DVDs and music CDs smuggled from China has made South Korean pop culture increasingly popular.”

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “North Korea is one of the last frontiers for South Korea’s soap operas, which have found growing audiences worldwide, including in the United States and in such unlikely places as Cuba. The reasons for the widespread appeal are not entirely clear. Some people credit their emotionally charged plots; others the enviable fashions that are part of the “Korean Wave.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, January 24, 2015]

“But in North Korea, defectors say, the reasons are obvious. The two Koreas share an ancient culture and language. And what counts as entertainment north of the border is severely limited, especially since all TVs and radios are preset to receive only state broadcasts. “In North Korean movies,” said North Korean defector Jeon Hyo-jin, “it’s all about loyalty to the leader and the party; the state before love. You should be ready to die for the leader, blah blah. In South Korean dramas, it was different. I found a whole new world there.”

“For some North Koreans, the emotional tug of the soaps was powerful enough to change their lives, forever. Kim Seung-hee, 24, is one. She watched her first drama, “Stairway to Heaven,” courtesy of soldiers who asked to use her home for safe watching, and was hooked immediately, drawn not only to South Korea’s freedoms, but also to the promise of love in a more open society. “South Korean men in the films had such good manners toward women, unlike North Korean men who like to order us around,” she said. “It made me yearn for South Korea, dreaming of meeting such a man.”

Western, South Korean and Chinese DVDs Seep Into North Korea in the Mid-2000s

Bruce Wallace wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Although the demilitarized buffer zone to the south still provides protection against illegal imports from South Korea, the real action is to the north. North Korean defectors say DVDs of foreign music and movies have accompanied the increase in trade and traffic with China over the last few years, leaking across the 850-mile border. [Source: Bruce Wallace, Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2005]

“From South Korean television dramas to Chinese martial arts movies and a smattering of Hollywood hits, they are giving North Koreans a break from the relentless pro-regime, anti-U.S. propaganda and a peek into how the much-wealthier outside world lives. "For decades, this country was second only to Albania, or even second to none, for keeping out all information about foreign countries," says Andrei Lankov, a Russian academic based in Seoul who lived in Pyongyang in the 1980s. "But the old state supervision, where the police would do random checks looking for things like radios, collapsed over the last decade. It was too expensive to run."

“The relaxation means that more North Koreans are acquiring cheap secondhand VCRs and even cheap DVD players from China. This year, a former North Korean smuggler now living in Thailand described to a Los Angeles Times reporter how he used to sneak 1,000 DVDs at a time across the border into North Korea, laid flat in a trunk under cigarette cartons. There was healthy demand for American action films such as "Con Air," said the smuggler, who used the name Park Dae Heung, but his strongest trade was in South Korean fare: TV dramas such as the romantic "Winter Sonata" and action flicks such as "JSA" (for Joint Security Area), about the slayings of two North Korean soldiers in the DMZ.

“As more images of well-fed, well-dressed foreigners filter into this downtrodden land, the emerging question is whether they can sow doubt in a population that has endured 60 years of unchallenged propaganda about the perfection of their own lives and the evils of the West.” Yon Ok Ju, a 20-year-old university student, majoring in English, watches American movies as part of her curriculum. She has seen "Twister," Adam Sandler's "Big Daddy" and "Gladiator." She loved the lead actor in that one. "I only know his name is Maximus," she says. His real name is Russell Crowe, she's told. She shrugs. "Never heard of him."

In 2009, Associated Press reported: “Even North Korean soldiers are watching DVDs in their barracks near the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas, Park said.

Among the movies circulating in the North: the South Korean blockbuster “JSA: Joint Security Area,” the report said.

Set inside the DMZ, the 2000 box office hit tells the fictional tale of two border guards — one South Korean, the other North Korean — who strike up an unlikely brotherhood amid an investigation into a tense border shooting.

The film reportedly was among those Kim Jong Il received in his gift pack from then-South Korean President Roh at a time of warmer relations between the two. [Source: Associated Press, July 23, 2009]

Smuggling South Korean Dramas into North Korea

Media from South Korea and other countries usually enters the North from across the porous Chinese border. In the past, it was distributed on copied CDs, but now it comes on more-easily-hidden USB flash drives and SD cards. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 21, 2020]

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times in 2015: ““Most of the border trade is driven by money, defectors said, not ideology, but some defectors and pro-democracy groups also help arrange for the contraband material to be smuggled into the North. The flow of entertainment began in the 1990s with the first real fissures in the North’s almost impregnable information blockade. In the face of a devastating famine, desperate North Korean authorities began turning a blind eye to people crossing into China to seek food and other goods to sell at home. Foreign video tapes, CDs and DVDs, as well as cheap Chinese devices to play them, quickly became black market best-sellers. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, January 24, 2015]

“Recognizing the danger, Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011, set up swat teams that barged into homes, cutting off the electricity before entering to prevent viewers from removing discs from their DVD players. But defectors say the suppliers have worked hard to foil inspectors, importing battery powered DVD players as well as more easily hidden flash drives. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” said Chung Kwang-il, another defector, who runs a smuggling operation. “These days, they call me to ask for specific soaps and K-pop music videos so they can beat competition in the markets. It’s not a one-way flow anymore.”

In the mid 2000s, smugglers carried in chests that can hold up to 1,000 pirated DVDs. South Korean dramas, movies about the Korean War and Hollywood action films were among the most sought after titles. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2005]

Associated Press reported in 2009: “North Koreans, from soldiers to civilians, appear to be risking their lives to smuggle in videos from China. North Koreans are buying cheap, Chinese-made videocassette players and sneaking the tapes in by tucking them into other goods brought in from neighboring China. They’re holding illicit screenings across Pyongyang or swapping tapes. If caught, they pay off security agents who turn a blind eye in favor of cash — or let them join them in watching the banned dramas, the report said. The demand has spawned a black market for illicit videos. Defectors say cheap VCR machines and videotapes can be purchased discreetly at markets, with some even displaying “CD Sale” signs, the report said. Due to the popularity of videos, VCR repairmen are well-paid in North Korea, the report said. [Source: Associated Press, July 23, 2009]

South Korean Drama on Kim Il Sung Popular with North Korean Students

In 2015, Radio Free Asia reported: “South Korean TV series, which are banned by North Korean authorities, are very popular among college students in Pyongyang. Authorities previously looked into college students watching ‘Until the Azalea Blooms’ but did not punish them severely, according to sources. [Source: Radio Free Asia, June 4, 2015]

North Korea imposes a strict ban on foreign media, and harsh punishments, including execution, can be handed down to those caught watching South Korean TV dramas smuggled into the country on DVDs and other electronic storage devices. Nevertheless, the popularity of “Until the Azalea Blooms” spread quickly among students and intellectuals in Pyongyang because of its realistic portrayal of North Korean society under former leader Kim Il Sung’s regime (1948-1994), a student at a university in Pyongyang told RFA.

“College students also enthusiastically embraced the drama out of a desire to better understand current leader Kim Jong Un, whose behavior and actions resemble those of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, he said. They increasingly circulated the show’s 10 episodes about Woo In Hee, an actress who was executed in the early 1980s, on 16-gigabyte micro-memory chips and watched them on their cell phones, the source said. Woo In Hee was known to be one of the mistresses that former leader Kim Jong Il had in addition to his four wives. She was publicly executed for speaking out about their relationship.

Impact of South Korean Dramas on North Korea

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: ““The decidedly lowbrow dramas — with names like “Bad Housewife” and “Red Bean Bread” — have, in fact, become something of a cultural Trojan horse, sneaking visions of the bustling South into the tightly controlled, impoverished North alongside the usual sudsy fare of betrayals, bouts of ill-timed amnesia and, at least once, a love affair with an alien. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, January 24, 2015]

“Defectors say the soaps have had an outsize impact, less for their often outlandish plots than their portrayals of the creature comforts of South Korea — a direct contradiction to decades of indoctrination about the inferiority of the South, and capitalism. It was those portraits of wealth, Jeon Hyo-jin said, that inspired her to make the dangerous decision to flee in 2013 at the age of 18. “The kitchens with hot and cold tap water, people dating in a cafe, cars clogging streets, women wearing different clothes each day — unlike us who wore the same padded jacket, day in day out,” said Ms. Jeon, who lives in Seoul. “Through the dramas, I learned how strange my own country was, how full of lies.”

“Analysts and defectors alike say there are limits to how much outside entertainment can accomplish. A recent study by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification of 149 recent defectors showed that more than eight in 10 had been exposed to South Korean movies or songs before fleeing the North. But most of them lived in areas close to China, where it is easier for smugglers to maneuver, and it is unclear how widely such entertainment has spread.

“Still, the defectors say that the soaps are a potent tool for exposing North Koreans to the outside world after years of mixed results from official psychological warfare that included shortwave radio broadcasts and propaganda messages blared over the border from loudspeakers in the South.”

Are South Korean Dramas Teaching North Koreans About Sex, Fashion and Romance?

Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a nonprofit organization that helps North Korean defectors, told “Of course South Korean soap operas are popular in North Korea. They have the same language and a lot of the same basic cultural characteristics. North Koreans have been starved for those kinds of things for so long. Most people have access to only one television channel. Imagine if you had one TV channel and it was just content produced by the White House. Nobody wants to watch more than five minutes of that. But the South Korean stuff is being smuggled in, and it starts to be shared by young people in high schools and universities, especially in the cities. As people start watching it, it becomes known that others are watching it as well.” [Source: Luke O'Neil,, April 9, 2018]

“Just like anything else, they pick up fashions from it, changing how they do their hair and also their behavior. We don’t really think about it in the West, but as kids we learn a lot about how to date—like the fact that you’re supposed to hold your girlfriend’s hand—from the media. So the foreign media has gone in. It’s starting from a very low baseline, but behavior is changing.”

“It’s not necessarily ‘This is how South Koreans date. The dude opened the door for the woman and she seemed to like it!’ It’s ‘Look at all the cars and skyscrapers, and they’re all wearing really nice clothes. Just the quality of life on the screen is a subversive message in the North Korean political context. So knowing that, and watching with other people, you start to discuss it: ‘Wow, they all have nice mobile phones. Is it really like that?’”

Risk of Watching South Korean Dramas in North Korea

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “As a math professor in North Korea, Jang Se-yul was among the nation’s relatively privileged classes; he got to sit in special seats in restaurants and on crowded trains, and more important in a country where many go hungry, was given priority for government food rations. Then he risked it all — for a soap opera from South Korea. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, January 24, 2015]

“The temptation in this case was “Scent of a Man,” an 18-episode drama about the forbidden love between an ex-convict and his stepsister. A graduate student had offered him the bundle of banned CDs smuggled into the North and, too curious to resist, Mr. Jang and five other professors huddled in one of their homes binge watching until dawn. They were careful to pull the curtains to escape the prying eyes of neighbors taught to turn in their fellow citizens for seditious activities. But they were caught anyway and demoted to manual labor at a power plant.

“Mr. Jang said they most likely escaped prison only because they paid bribes, but facing a lifetime of social stigma — and having had a glimpse of the comforts of South Korea in “Scent of a Man” — he decided to defect. He now leads a defectors’ group that sends soap operas and other entertainment to the North to try to empower people to demand an end to authoritarian rule. “I am sure these soaps have an impact on North Koreans, and I am the proof,” he said. “In the future, if they spread, they can even help foster anti-government movements. That’s why the North Korean authorities are so desperate to stop them from spreading.”

Threat South Korean Dramas Present to the North Korean Regime

“You can be killed for watching American or South Korean films or dramas,” one defector told The Independent. “You might say that’s crazy, but if people understand freedom or know how people in other countries live, it is dangerous for the government.” A report in the Washington Post in August 2019 described how certain aspects of South Korean media are considered dangerous to North Korean authorities because they encourage North Koreans to escape. The report cited a survey by South Korea’s Unification Media Group (UMG) of 200 North Korean escapees living in South Korea, in which 70 percent said they knew of someone who was punished for watching Korean dramas. More than 70 percent said they believed that it became more dangerous to access foreign media since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 21, 2020]

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times in 2015: “Kim Jong-un, has issued increasingly pointed warnings to his subjects about the “poisonous elements of capitalism” crossing China’s border with the North, tempting even his Communist elite. Defectors say there has been a severe crackdown on smugglers, and in the fall, South Korean intelligence reported hearing that Mr. Kim was so shaken by the spread of the soaps that he ordered the execution of 10 Workers’ Party officials accused of succumbing to the shows’ allure, according to lawmakers who had been briefed on the matter at a parliamentary hearing. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, January 24, 2015]

“Few people outside North Korea think the TV adventures of the lust-driven and lovelorn could lead to the overthrow of the Kim family dynasty, which has survived for decades despite international isolation and sanctions. But the infiltration of the dramas into even elite circles, despite the threat of prison or worse, is a potent indication of the challenges Mr. Kim faces in a globalized world. (The swift arrival in the North of at least some bootleg copies of “The Interview,” the comedy that North Korea viewed as an “act of war,” is another.)

“Since he came to power in 2011, Mr. Kim has struggled to open the North just enough to keep his top loyalists happy, plying them with imported goods, while maintaining control in a country where government-installed intercoms in every home still blare reminders of required ideological education classes. He allowed an estimated two million people, close to 10 percent of the population, to own cellphones, but ensured they could not call abroad. And, despite a crackdown, the country has seemed unwilling, or unable, to fully dismantle the smuggling networks that bring in not only banned soap operas, movies and K-pop videos, but also much-needed trade.

Video Lectures on Watching South Korean Drama in North Korea

Video lectures smuggled out of North Korea show people being punished for mimicking popular South Korean written and spoken expressions. Radio Free Asia reported: According to the speaker in the video, 70 percent of residents nationwide are watching South Korean movies and dramas,” said a resident of Chongjin, the capital of North Hamgyong province, where the videos were shown at all institutions on July 3 and 4. “The speaker said with alarm that our national culture is fading away,” said the resident, who requested anonymity for security reasons. It was not clear how the statistics were derived. “In the video, an official from the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] discussed the effort to eliminate South Korean words, and examples of how those using them were punished,” the source said. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 21, 2020]

“The video lectures had footage of people being arrested and interrogated by the police for speaking or writing in the South Korean style. “Dozens of men and women had their heads shaved and they were shackled as investigators interrogated them,” the source said. Beyond regional dialects, aspects of the languages of North and South have diverged during their seven decades of separation. North Korea has tried to elevate the status of the Pyongyang dialect, but widespread consumption of South Korean cinema and soap operas has made the Seoul sound popular among the young. “It is too late to prevent the people from being tempted by South Korean culture, since its attraction is already deeply rooted,” said the Chongjin source.

Nevertheless, the source said, punishments may become even more severe than what the video depicted. “Starting this month, the authorities will utilize various techniques, including more severe legal punishment, along with ideological education projects, to prevent the further infiltration of South Korean culture,” said the source. An official of the Pyongyang municipal judicial agency said stricter punishments are being implemented this week.

“Authorities again strongly ordered Pyongyang and other urban areas across the country to severely punish those who imitate South Korean language,” the official, who declined to be named, told RFA. The source said the order came on the heels of a crackdown within the capital, lasting from mid-May to early July. “They found that surprisingly many teenagers were imitating South Korean speaking styles and expressions,” the official said.“In May, a total of 70 young people were arrested after the two-month crackdown by the Pyongyang police, which came as the Highest Dignity issued an order to ‘strongly wage a struggle against a culture of unusual thought’,” the official said, using an honorific term to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“The arrested youth are suspected of failing to protect their identities and ethnicities by imitating and disseminating South Korean words and pronunciation,” said the official. The official said that their arrests and interrogations were filmed, so they could be used in the video that eventually was shown in the mandatory lectures. “From some time ago in Pyongyang, the trend of watching South Korean movies and dramas and imitating South Korean words and writings took hold among young people, but it wasn’t much of a problem until now, as [police] had taken bribes when catching them in the act,” said the official.

“However, the authorities’ position is that the education stage for teenagers is over, so the party’s legal and administrative punishment for allowing the invasion of South Korean culture will be much more severe in the future,” the source said.North Korean authorities revised the Criminal Law in 2015, raising the maximum sentence to 10 years in prison for “capitalist cultural invasion,” a vague term that refers to watching or listening to media from outside North Korea. The Rodong Shinmun, North Korea’s official newspaper, warned youth May 26 not to view foreign media, saying, “If you cannot remain vigilant against a single movie or a song, and imitate it, the national culture will gradually become discolored, and the rotten lifestyle of materialism will prevail.” In June, RFA reported that a specific sarcastic phrase uttered in a South Korean drama that authorities saw as disrespectful to Kim Jong Un had become popular among North Koreans of all ages, and that the government was scrambling to find ways to eliminate the phrase.

Crackdown on the Smuggling and Trade of South Korean Dramas in North Korea

In 2009, Associated Press reported: :Teams of North Korean agents known as “109 squads” are sweeping through border towns at night, arresting smugglers and confiscating banned South Korean videos and music amid concerns about the popularity of soap operas from Seoul, a think tank said Thursday. Those convicted of sneaking contraband movies into the communist country face harsh penalties — including public execution in some cases, researchers at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification said. [Source: Associated Press, July 23, 2009]

“The regime has mobilized inspection teams to “purge” border cities of those smuggling in illegal foreign films and has publicly executed offenders as a warning against black market dealings in South Korean videos, the report said. The nighttime “search and arrest” sweeps are meant “to prevent the intrusion of anti-Socialist ideas and cultures,” according to a notice posted in one city, the report said.

“North Korea’s control over its society may have weakened but the North won’t stand for condoning the influx of outside influences if it puts the socialist system in danger,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University. Public executions, though dropping in number in recent years, are still carried out on the most serious offenders, the report said, noting that conviction for circulating foreign videotapes is among the offenses that carry the death penalty.

North Korean Punished and Jailed for Watching South Korean Dramas

In 2015, Radio Free Asia reported: “North Korean authorities have made college students perform forced labor and denied them academic diplomas for watching a South Korean television drama about an actress from the North who was executed by former leader Kim Jong Il, according to sources inside the country. “About five students at Kim Il Sung University, Kim Hyong Jik University of Education and Pyongyang Railroad College who watched ‘Until the Azalea Blooms’ were sent to a prison camp,” an official in Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service. [Source: Radio Free Asia, June 4, 2015]

“Thirty college students who surrendered themselves to North Korean authorities for watching the TV drama have been forced to work at construction sites, and those who were about to graduate received only a certificate instead of a university diploma, he said. “Of all the university students, only a few turned themselves in to North Korean authorities and were punished,” the Pyongyang official said. “But their curiosity about ‘Until the Azalea Blooms’ seems to have grown in the wake of the punishments and crackdown.”

“The instruction was delivered to all universities in Pyongyang in early April that students watching the South Korean television drama … voluntarily surrender themselves to the low-level Workers’ Party committee,” he said.

In 2010, more than 1,000 North Koreans were jailed for secretly watching South Korean TV shows and films, a Seoul-based defector group said. AFP reported: “North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity said some 1,200 people are in jail in the northwestern city of Kaechon for the offence. It cited a source in the prison, which has a total 3,000 inmates. “he prison official said it was the first time the number of people jailed solely for watching the South’s TV dramas has gone over 1,000... now the prison is overcrowded with such prisoners,” the group said. [Source: AFP, December 07, 2010]

North Korea Publicly Executes 80: Some for Watching South Korean Dramas

In November 2013, reported: “As many as 80 people were publicly executed in North Korea, some for offenses as minor as watching South Korean movies or possessing a Bible. South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported that the so-called criminals were put to death in seven cities across North Korea on Nov. 3, in the first known large-scale public executions by the Kim Jong-un regime. A source, who is familiar with internal affairs in the North and who recently visited the country, told the paper that about 10 people were killed in each city. [Source:, November 12, 2013]

“Eight people — their heads covered with white bags — were tied to stakes at a local stadium in the city of Wonsan, before authorities shot them with a machine gun, according to the source. Wonsan authorities gathered a crowd of 10,000 people, including children, at Shinpoong Stadium and forced them to watch the killings. “I heard from the residents that they watched in terror as the corpses were (so) riddled by machine-gun fire that they were hard to identify afterward,” the JoongAng Ilbo source said.

“Most of the Wonsan victims were charged with watching or illegally trafficking South Korean videos, involvement in prostitution, or possessing a Bible. Relatives or accomplices of the execution victims implicated in their alleged crimes were sent to prison camps. There is no clear reason for the executions. One government official noted they occurred in cities that are centers of economic development. Wonsan is a port city that Kim is reportedly planning to make a tourist destination by building an airport, hotels and a ski resort on Mount Masik.

Simultaneous executions in seven cities could suggest an extreme measure by the North Korean government to quell public unrest or any capitalistic inclinations that may accompany its development projects. The common theme of the persecution was crimes related to South Korea — like watching South Korean films — or corruption of public morals, especially sexual misconduct. North Korean law permits executions for conspiring to overthrow the government, treason and terrorism. But the country has also been known to order public executions for minor infractions such as religious activism, cellphone use and stealing food, in an effort to intimidate the public.

Some experts questioned whether the executions were related to earlier executions of members of the Unhasu Orchestra, a state-run orchestra that First Lady Ri Sol-ju used to participate in, according to the report. “As the news that people were brutally killed in public executions spread in the countryside, the people have been spreading rumors that say that Kim Jong-un has started a terror campaign in response to the Ri Sol-ju’s pornography scandal,” the source told JoongAng Ilbo. There were no executions in the capital of Pyongyang, where Kim depends on the support of the country’s elite. The young leader continues to build luxury and recreational facilities in the capital, including a new water park.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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