North Koreans Floored by News of Secret Executions For Illegal Cell Phone Use

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The map shows the location of the city of Hyesan in Yanggang province, North Korea.
The map shows the location of the city of Hyesan in Yanggang province, North Korea.

North Korean residents are reeling from the news that three women were secretly executed in a northern city for illegally using their cell phones to distribute copies of a popular South Korean television drama banned by authorities in the North, sources inside the country said.

RFA’s Korean Service reported on Sept. 8 that the three housewives had been executed in Hyesan city in Yanggang province for distributing the South Korean television drama “Until the Azalea Blooms” about an actress from the North executed by former leader Kim Jong Il, who ruled from 1994 until 2011.

“The three housewives executed on charges of using illegal cell phones on August 20 were members of the same family, and as it turns out recently were given capital punishment for reproducing and distributing the South Korean soap opera illegally,” said a source in Yanggang province, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“Residents were shocked and bewildered when they heard the news about the three housewives executed on account of illegal cell phone use,” he said.

North Korean authorities tried to hide the fact that the women were executed for distributing illegal media because they were afraid that more people would become curious about the South Korean soap opera and try to obtain copies of it, he said.

The women had saved episodes of the South Korean drama on a thumb drive from China and secretly sold it for 300,000 North Korean won [U.S. $35], he said.

North Koreans can buy a 32-gigabyte Chinese thumb drive for 60,000 North Korean won [U.S. $7] in local markets and connect it to a cell phone to watch videos, he said.

Two of the executed women were sisters who lived near Hyesan Art College, and the other was their sister-in-law who lived in the city’s Hyetan-dong neighborhood, the source said.

But because they were arrested after July 14, they were not eligible for a special amnesty that leader Kim Jung Un granted to thousands of prisoners on Oct. 8-9 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party, he said.

The execution of the three women was announced at the inminban meeting [people’s group], but no one watched the executions, said another source speaking on condition of anonymity, referring to the mutual surveillance groups with compulsory membership that operate in North Koreans’ places of residence.

“When people are caught using an illegal cell phone to call their relatives in South Korea, they are sentenced to at least three to seven years in prison, so it was extremely rare that the three women were executed because of illegal cell phone use,” he said.

That’s why locals were shocked when they found out that authorities executed three housewives for the simple violation of using cell phones illegally, he said.

“I have no idea about ‘Until the Azalea Blooms,’ the soap opera the three women illegally distributed, but there is no reason to risk one’s own life to watch the South Korean dramas,” he said.

Produced in South Korea as an eight-part series in 1998, “Until the Azalea Blooms” portrays North Korean society and artistic circles under national founder Kim Il Sung’s regime (1948-1994), based on accounts by citizens who had defected to the South. Kim is the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un.

In June, RFA reported that North Korean authorities made college students perform forced labor at construction sites and denied them academic diplomas for watching the soap opera.

Authorities have long tried to block South Korean soap operas, movies and music from entering the country in an attempt to keep unwanted foreign influences from seeping into the isolated nation.

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, many North Koreans watch foreign programs saved on USB devices, which are compact and easy to conceal from government inspectors.

Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.





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