Updated at 11:45 a.m. ET on 2013-8-9
Authorities in North Korea have sentenced a popular North Korean comedian who once performed for the late dictator Kim Jong Il to an indefinite period of “hard labor” in a coal mine for a “slip of the tongue” during a performance last month, according to sources inside the country.
Lee Choon Hong, who is known for satirizing aspects of North Korean society by mimicking voices, made the mistake on "sensitive issues" while performing for workers at a pastureland project in southeastern Kangwon province, said a resident of the North who spoke to RFA’s Korean Service last week.
“Lee Choon Hong had a slip of the tongue while giving a performance for the workers at the Sepo reclamation project site,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“He was sent to the city of Sunchon in South Pyongan province to carry out reform work at the Jikdong Youth Coal Mine,” he said.
According to the source, Lee was among entertainers ordered by North Korean authorities to visit and perform for workers at the 150,000-acre Sepo project site, the brainchild of regime leader Kim Jong Un.
The source was unsure exactly what kind of “mistake” Lee had committed but said that he had been sent “straight to the coal mine in the middle of his performance.”
He was not even given permission to return home to prepare or say goodbye to his family, the source said.
The source said that the comedian was forced to postpone his daughter’s wedding following the punishment.
Lee was tasked with “hard labor” deep in the 2/8 Jikdong Youth Coal Mine and has to be “extra careful about his every move” because he is in a trial period, the source said.
The source said punishments such as the one Lee was given are typically handed out to officials who have made inappropriate remarks about the regime and usually involve an evaluation period of about six months.
A former high-ranking North Korean official from Pyongyang, who defected and now lives in South Korea and who knows Lee well, said the forced labor assignment was not the first for the comedian.
“This is already the second time Lee has been forced to undergo reform work—he had suffered this embarrassment once in the mid-2000s for misspeaking,” he said.
He said Lee has a special gift for delivery and that his act had made him quite popular among the people.
While working for the propaganda squad of a military unit, Lee had been chosen to join former regime leader Kim Jong Il’s “Entourage of Delight” during the 1980s and 90s, and often performed for him, the defector said.
Later, while working as a comedian with the Mansudae Art Troupe, Lee was awarded the title of Distinguished Actress for his ability to bring laughter to the people with his quick wit.
According to the defector, news of Lee’s labor reform has saddened North Koreans.
“When people heard Lee’s news, they sympathized with him saying that as comic storytelling is there to make people laugh, it must be very difficult to avoid going against the policies of the ruling party.”
Reported by Young Jung for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story wrongly described Lee Choon Hong as a comedienne.