North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s attempt to crack down on illegal videos appears to be more successful at filling the pockets of corrupt law enforcement officials than preventing the totalitarian nation’s people from watching forbidden material, according to sources inside the country.
“Kim Jong Un issued a directive to each judicial agency on Dec. 19 of last year that -- regardless of the reason -- anyone caught watching illegal video material will be sentenced to more than five years in jail,” a source in Yanggang province told RFA’s Korean Service. “In addition, their families will be exiled to isolated, rural areas.”
A source in North Hamgyong confirmed the substance of the government decree.
“The central government has notched up the level of punishment of those residents watching illegal video material to try to root out their viewing habit,” the source said. “On Dec. 26 last year each provincial government held a People’s General Meeting (generally considered a kangaroo court), where those arrested on charges of watching illegal video material such as South Korean movies or music videos are sentenced to more than five years in jail.”
While Kim’s decree was aimed at curbing North Koreans’ appetite for South Korean videos, it has really whetted judicial officials’ appetite for a quick payoff with a bribe that locals call a ‘samcheonmutong,’ North Korean sources explain.
According to one source, ‘samcheonmutong’ means ‘three thousand’ Chinese yuan – a sum that will solve everything.
“Certainly 3000 Chinese RMB is big bucks for those arrested, but compared with their long jail terms and the deportation of family members to the remote countryside, it’s still a bearable burden,” the source said. “Despite such a miserable situation, judicial officials talk as if they’re making a big concession.”
The source added: “They even go to the trouble of persuading arrested residents to donate the bribes, with an excuse like: ‘We are human beings too, and we don’t want to give you such a harsh punishment. But, we need to bribe our bosses with money in order to condone your illegal activities as well as save our own lives.”
Despite the continuing crackdown, there has been a gradual increase in the number of North Koreans watching illegal video material, North Korean sources say.
The increase comes as the North Korean government takes ever more draconian steps to reign in the practice. In addition to the jail terms and exiles, 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, sources inside the country said.
RFA’s Korean Service reported on Sept. 8 that the three housewives were 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.
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 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. Seoul's pop culture output has a wide following in Asia and a growing global fan base.
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. Translated by Changsop Pyon. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.