North Korea cracks down on soldiers singing and joking like ‘South Koreans’

High-ranking officials spotted soldiers in a talent show emulating South Korean singers and comedians.
By Myung Chul Lee for RFA Korean
North Korea cracks down on soldiers singing and joking like ‘South Koreans’ North Korean soldiers sing a song as they exit the Jonsyng Revolutionary Museum in Pyongyang in this file photo.

North Korea is cracking down on South Korean culture infiltrating its military ranks after soldiers in a talent show were caught performing in ways that resemble the South’s flashy  television programs, sources in the country told RFA. 

Their performances in a country with staid, state-run TV sparked an investigation that led to nationwide countermeasures, a source from the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service Sept. 5 on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“During the show, some of them told jokes that resembled South Korean stand-up comedians, and others sang songs like South Korean singers,” said the source.

“The Central Committee judged it to be a serious breach of discipline and ordered a thorough investigation and punishment of those involved,” the source said.

North Korea has been vigilant about trying to prevent its youth from being swallowed up in the pop culture of the democratic and far more prosperous South. 

In late 2020, the government passed the draconian Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture Act, which punishes citizens for a wide variety of offenses, mostly related to watching, keeping or distributing media from capitalist countries, particularly from South Korea and the U.S. The law carries a maximum penalty of death for serious offenders.

The law has also been used to punish drivers for tinting their car windows, students for using South Korean-style speech and slang, and even dance instructors, for teaching youth to emulate the moves of foreign pop stars.

Because the soldiers involved in the talent show incident are in a unit under the Ministry of State Security, they are essentially police, and could one day be tasked with cracking down on South Korean and other “anti-socialist”  influences among the people, according to the source.

“They should be at the forefront of protecting the system,” the source said. “Anti-socialist phenomena have also emerged in other units. The Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] called for an emergency measure [nationwide] … ordering the eradication of socialism within the units.” 

“The reason this is so serious is because there were high-ranking officials at the talent show who saw what happened,” said the source. “Officers and soldiers are nervous because the Central Committee emphasized the severity of the incident.”

By emulating South Korean stand-up comedians and singers, the ministry considers the soldiers to have been helping the enemy, the source said.

“From Sept. 10, the unit, including its officers,  will attend a month-long large-scale ideological lecture series,” the source said.

The nationwide emergency measure order immediately went into effect after the investigation, and authorities in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong began education sessions for soldiers there, a judicial source from the province told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“The Central Committee will greatly expand political and ideological projects for all soldiers and agents. This expansion will serve to block the channels of anti-socialist behavior that recently enlisted soldiers and officers could bring to their units,” the second source said.

“In addition, the soldiers and officials are prohibited from contacting ‘unhealthy’ civilians so that the ministry can establish a strict command system and strong military discipline within the social security forces,” the second source said.

Regardless of the measures authorities take, however, the attraction of the South’s culture will persist, the second source said.

“It's nothing new that young soldiers are influenced by anti-socialist [media]. Whenever a problem was previously raised, the Central Committee took measures by making a fuss as if something was wrong, but this kind of behavior has not disappeared yet,” the second source said. 

“No matter how many long extensive lectures they hold, or how loudly they scold, it’s just a temporary measure. They cannot completely block the flow [of media] to curious people among the younger generation.”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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