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TV drama from South saturates black market in North Korea, bringing hope, and risk

SEOUL -- Chilling reports in early November that Pyongyang had publicly executed scores of citizens -- some for the crime of watching South Korean videos -- seemed to mark a disturbing turn in the dictatorship of Kim Jong Un. But if history is any guide, even the threat of death is unlikely to quell North Koreans’ hunger for illicit entertainment from south of the border.

“The spread of South Korean media -- above all, South Korean videotapes and DVDs -- inside North Korea might be the single most important development of the last ten years,” said Andrei Lankov, a history professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University.

Constant surveillance, heavily guarded borders and thorough indoctrination in North Korea have made it one of the world’s most secretive and least understood countries. But the “iron curtain” which once sealed off 24 million North Koreans from the rest of the world is frayed, thanks to the spread of illegal cell phones -- and the ease of obtaining South Korean pop culture.

The so-called “hermit kingdom” isn’t airtight anymore, thanks to private markets which sprang up after the collapse of state rationing 20 years ago. Chinese DVD players and flash drives -- used to watch pirated TV shows -- are so cheap, even impoverished North Koreans can afford them.

So North Korea’s hottest entertainment is now made in Seoul, by Pyongyang's arch-enemy, South Korea. Consumers of illegal videos live not just in privileged Pyongyang nor in the provinces bordering China -– where most of the videos are illegally recorded -- but across the country, even in less-accessible inland regions.

According to defectors, high-ranking North Korean cadres are not just consumers of the South’s entertainment, but also serve as smugglers and distributors of the contraband videos.

“People who have higher positions are more likely to watch,” said scholar Lankov. “But common people are watching as well. Technically, it’s illegal (but) you can buy your way out.” He reckons three-quarters of North Koreans have access to South Korean shows.

The titles available are limited; chosen by small entrepreneurs for their broad appeal. TV series and soap operas -- not serious public affairs or highbrow fare –- are the most common offerings.

“These are not documentaries about medieval history or nuclear physics,” said Lankov.

Among the millions of North Koreans hooked on South Korean dramas was Hyeonseo Lee, a young defector who fled the North in 2008 to join the nearly 25,000 North Koreans who risked imprisonment, and their lives, to reach the freedom and affluence south of the border.

“Because of drama(s), many North Koreans left North Korea these days,” she said told CBS News earlier this year at her college campus in Seoul. North Koreans, she said, are “curious about South Korea. They want to come here because what they learned (from North Korea propaganda) and what they saw (on TV) is completely different.”

After fleeing to China and then South Korea, Lee made a harrowing journey back into her homeland to extract family members. As her mother set eyes on the South Korean capital for the first time, she was stunned by something that Seoul’s residents take for granted: traffic. 

She had always assumed the car-clogged avenues in the television dramas were fiction, arranged by collecting every car in the country in order to shoot a scene.   

Actors on a set during the filming of a South Korean television drama
Actors on a set during the filming of a South Korean television drama. CBS
 South Korean entertainment has demolished Pyongyang’s propaganda about an “impoverished” South, says Dongseo University scholar B.R. Myers. “It’s becoming clear to the North Koreans -– even though they don’t watch South Korean news -- just from watching South Korean junk culture, that (South Koreans) have no interest in Kim Jong Un at all. They’re perfectly willing to keep living under what the North Koreans would think of as ‘Yankee Rule.’”

Kookmin University’s Lankov agrees. “The North Korean government doesn’t tell its people anymore that South Korea is a destitute colony of U.S. imperialism.” Stories of South Korean prosperity are reinforced by word-of-mouth reports via cross-border trade with China.

Not that it’s hard to compete with the dry crop reports, staged photo ops and histrionic news readers standard on North Korean domestic TV. “If you think it’s boring now, you have to see what it was like 20 years ago,” notes Myers.

But North Korean TV falls especially flat beside the multi-billion-dollar entertainment juggernaut known as “Korean Wave” -- South Korean pop music, movies, TV shows and other pop culture churned out for domestic and export markets since the 1990s that has successfully stolen a significant share from Hollywood in many Asian markets.

“Korean dramas actually have very dramatic storytelling and the characters within them are extremely attractive,” says hit producer Yeongseop Kim. “So there is an addictiveness to them. Once viewers are sucked in, they can’t get out!”

The syrupy sentimentality of Korean entertainment appeals to viewers across East Asia, said Kim, an executive producer for South Korea’s SBS network. But for North Korean fans –- delighted to watch programs in their native language –- Kim said there’s an added hook:

“North Korea is a very closed society without individual rights,” he said. “But in our dramas, all the characters are able to speak their mind.”

While many in South Korea celebrate the vicarious thrill of freedom offered to their neighbors to the north, Myers worries that soap opera glasnost could encourage Kim Jong Un to behave more recklessly.

“The North Korean regime cannot explain to its people why the South Koreans do not want to be liberated by North Korea. And this is the cancer, so to speak, that is eating away at the North Korean state.

“We should not be rubbing our hands in glee when we see this happening, because this is precisely what is making the regime behave so belligerently. It desperately needs to shore up mass support.”

A soap opera revolution in North Korea is highly unlikely. But the smuggled TV shows have helped created new skeptics -- in a country where the regime used to monopolize the message.

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