North Korea Shutters ‘Antisocialist’ Entertainment Centers Featuring Foreign Content

The campaign has forced private karaoke bars to operate underground, sources say.

A North Korean man sings karaoke while his daughter plays the piano at a hotel bar in Mount Kumgang, North Korea, in a file photo.

Authorities in North Korean provinces near the country’s border with China are cracking down on so-called “antisocialist activities,” forcing the owners of popular entertainment establishments that feature foreign content to operate underground, according to local sources.

A source from South Hamgyong province recently told RFA’s Korean Service that propaganda had recently been issued calling on residents to “reject any inflow of imperialistic cultural ideology,” which he said was part of a bid by the authorities to stamp out “capitalistic decadence promoted through an antisocialist movement.”

“North Korean residents have been expecting a big change since the North-South and North-U.S. summits,” the source said, referring to historic meetings between the North’s leader Kim Jong Un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in in April, as well as Kim’s unprecedented talks with U.S. President Donald Trump in June.

Moon and Trump dangled promises of regime security and economic prosperity for Kim in exchange for the North abandoning its nuclear weapons program, which Kim agreed to in principle, and the source said that state-run media had since been crowing about a “new future” for the country.

Nevertheless, despite expectations that North Korea’s recent diplomacy could lead to a more open society, the source said, “the authorities are pushing a campaign of ‘struggle’ against antisocialism.”

“Residents are disappointed by the tightened control on foreign culture, as they believed a new era of peace and change would come,” he said.

“Most North Koreans enjoy karaoke and people don’t understand why the authorities have suddenly tightened controls over karaoke culture, as well as foreign music and dance. The people are exhausted from being ‘mobilized’ [for projects] to improve the country and are angry that the central committee [of North Korea’s Worker’s Party] won’t let them amuse themselves.”

According to the source, “all state-run karaoke rooms have been shut down recently,” while authorities were “strongly cracking down on [private] karaoke rooms, leading to secret karaoke rooms operating underground.”

The government is also shuttering many state-run restaurants, he said, leaving residents with few places to sing and dance.

A source from Yanggang province, also near the border with China, told RFA that authorities now “ambush places where people enjoy themselves.”

“They say it is to fight against non-socialist elements, and if they find anyone who sings South Korean or Chinese music, they send them to labor camps,” the source said.

According to the source, the threat of a labor camp sentence does not deter residents from seeking out entertainment.

“People are aware that they would have a very hard time in the labor camps, but they still set up karaoke machines in secret places to sing and dance to capitalist music with close friends and neighbors,” he said.

“Even if the authorities try to tighten their control [over karaoke culture], it would not be easy to stop residents from enjoying foreign music and dance.”

Capital karaoke

In March, sources told RFA that authorities were closing karaoke bars in the capital Pyongyang amid falling business and concerns over crime and other antisocial behavior.

The bars, which came equipped with high-quality sound systems, had charged foreign businessmen and other guests steep prices for drinks and the attentions of female employees, who would often dance with patrons and pose for photos, sources told RFA in earlier reports.

However, authorities ordered the bars closed at the beginning of the year, with no reason given, they said. The move had sparked rumors that the bars were associated with violent criminal incidents and no longer generate money for the regime, and that the move was related to a campaign against “anti-socialist culture.”

In September 2011, former national leader Kim Jong Il criticized karaoke bars as decadent, and all bars outside Pyongyang were closed, a North Korean resident told RFA earlier this year.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.