Smuggled DVDs Spread in Hermit Kingdom

Authorities in North Korea find banned South Korean videos are popping up in new places.
2012-05-08
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A South Korean pop singer performs in Shanghai, China, March 7, 2011.
AFP

Illicit South Korean movies and other entertainment programs are becoming more available in North Korea due to the proliferation of DVD writers smuggled in from China and new distribution networks in the south of the country, sources say.

The DVD writers are stoking the production of videos of South Korean soap operas, movies, and music which North Korean leaders have long tried to forbid in an attempt to keep unwanted foreign influences from seeping into the isolated nation, out of fears these could undermine authoritarian rule.

Videos featuring South Korean pop culture programs have usually been smuggled into the country through North Korea’s northern border with China and, until recently, only reached the southern parts of the country after much difficulty.

But now, sources say, the movies are becoming more widely available in the south as residents there have begun copying the programs and selling them on the black market.

Authorities uncovered one such distribution network in an investigation last month in the southeastern city of Wonsan, Kangwon province, a source told RFA.

“Many people who had been selling copied South Korean DVD movies were arrested in mass numbers in Wonsan in early April,” said the source from North Hamgyong province, speaking on condition of anonymity after a visit to the southern region.

Authorities had uncovered the illicit copying and selling of the DVDs after a security department began investigating the absence of students from practice for games at the city’s Songheung Middle School, the source said.

The investigators found that groups of students were skipping the rehearsalspart of their preparations for mass games for a centennial celebration for former North Korean leader Kim Il Sungbecause they had been going to watch South Korean DVDs together, the source said.

Probing how residents of Songheung district had gotten hold of the DVDs, investigators found that people in Kosung, Pyonggang, and Chulwon counties areas of Kangwon province closer to the South Korean borderhad been copying DVDs in large volumes and distributing them throughout the country.

He added that it was unclear what punishments those involved in the distribution networks had received, but authorities had been surprised to find that members of the military had been implicated.

“Many involved in this incident were arrested, but since too many were involved, the party and the security department of the province are having difficulty dealing with them. Civilians could receive light penalties, but it will be difficult for military servicemen to escape severe punishments,” the source explained. 

DVD proliferation

Kangwon province, where the students had been secretly watching movies and from where their DVDs came, is located on the far side of the country and away from the usual sources of foreign entertainment.

Most of the banned South Korean programs make their way to North Korea from the South via China, along the Hermit Kingdom’s porous northern border where the black market is most active.

The movies are copied in large quantities in towns near the Northern border, such as Hoeryong and Hyesan or Sinuijuwith some sent on to places like Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital and richest city.

Until recently, it was rare for the copied movies to reach towns near the southern border, another source in the country said.

But now, because of the increased availability of devices from China, residents of towns near the border with South Korea who can receive South Korean broadcast signals are copying and selling the DVDs, he said.

“In the past, South Korean movies were brought in through the North Korean–Chinese border. Now, people who live near the inter-Korean border can watch the movies themselves firsthand and can even make money off of those movies,” the source told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Before, some residents close to the South Korean border had been able to watch South Korean and foreign programs, but had no machines to copy and distribute them.

The Chinese DVD writers and Chinese-made TVs on the black market support the two incompatible broadcast formats used in North and South Korea, making it possible to copy programs into DVDs.

With the machines, the residents in towns near the southern border are burning DVDs and making quite a bit of money off of selling them, the source said.

Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.