SEOUL, South Korea – North Koreans are hungry for movies and soap operas from South Korea and are smuggling them into the reclusive country at a rapid rate — even at the risk of public execution, a Seoul think tank said Thursday.
The regime in Pyongyang has mobilized inspection teams to "purge" border cities of those smuggling in illegal foreign films and has publicly executed offenders as a warning against black market dealings in South Korean videos, the Korea Institute for National Unification said.
Still, despite the threat of punishment, many North Koreans are secretly watching smuggled videos, the South Korean government-affiliated institute said in its latest report on the human rights situation in the North.
"Many defectors testified that secret viewing of South Korean movies and TV dramas is rapidly spreading all over North Korea," the report said. North Koreans are buying cheap, Chinese-made videocassette players, swapping smuggled tapes, and if caught, are paying off security agents or letting them watch the tapes themselves, it said.
South Korean pop culture — from TV dramas, horror films and "K-pop" music — is popular in much of Asia, from the Philippines to Japan.
Even North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, a reputed movie buff said to own a library stocked with more than 20,000 films, reportedly enjoys South Korean films. In 2007, the then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun gave Kim a gift of DVDs of popular South Korean films during their summit, according Roh's former spokesman, Chun Ho-seon.
But communist North Korea's leaders have long tried to keep unwanted outside influences from seeping into the isolated country, particularly from rival South Korea, for fears the influx could undermine Kim's authoritarian hold over the nation of 24 million.
North Korea is one of the world's most closed countries. Few North Koreans are allowed to travel outside the country — or even to exchange phone calls, letters or e-mail with people in other nations.
It remains in a state of war with South Korea because their three-year war ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953. Six decades later, North Korea is one of the world's poorest nations; South Korea has the world's 13th largest economy.
The regime bans its citizens from watching South Korean recordings and from listening to South Korean and other foreign radio. North Koreans' radios and TV sets are fixed to state channels and "if a seal is found broken, the person involved is ... treated as a political criminal," the think tank said.
"North Korea severely punishes those who circulate outside information to the inside, viewing it as an act that heightens instability to the North Korean system," Kim Soo-am, a research fellow at the institute, said at a news conference Thursday.
In recent years, authorities have stepped up their monitoring of smuggled videos, engaging in nighttime "search and arrest" sweeps "to prevent the intrusion of anti-Socialist ideas and cultures," according to a notice posted in one city, the report said.
Those convicted of political crimes face harsh punishment: Thousands are held in prison camps while public executions, though dropping in number in recent years, still are carried out on the most serious offenders, the report said.
Circulating foreign videotapes is among the offenses that carry a death penalty.
Despite the threat of hard labor or execution, North Korean defectors say South Korean TV dramas and movies, as well as tapes of South Korean pop songs, are being smuggled into the country through the long, porous border with China.
Even soldiers are secretly watching South Korean movies, the think tank said.
The demand has spawned a black market for illicit videos. Defectors say cheap VCR machines and videotapes can be purchased discreetly at markets, with some even displaying "CD Sale" signs, the report said. Due to the popularity of videos, VCR repairmen are well-paid in North Korea, the report said.
Indeed, foreign media — radio broadcasts or movies — could pose the biggest threat to Kim's regime if North Koreans become disillusioned with their country after getting a glimpse of life on the other side of the border, said Peter Beck, a Korean affairs expert who teaches at universities in South Korea and the U.S.
"The control of information is one of the powers that Kim Jong Il has wielded over the last 15 years," Beck said in Seoul. "His control on flow of information is weakening, and that I think poses a serious threat to his power."