North Korea sentences teens to hard labour for watching K-Dramas

Two North Korean teenagers were publicly sentenced to 12 years of hard labour for watching South Korean TV dramas, according to a rare video obtained by BBC Korean.

Colleagues of BBC Korean has obtained exclusive footage of a public trial in North Korea, where two teenage boys were sentenced to 12 years of hard labour for watching South Korean TV dramas, also known as K-dramas.

The video, which was reportedly filmed in 2022, shows the two boys, aged 16, being handcuffed and paraded in front of a large crowd of students at an open-air stadium.

They were also scolded by uniformed officers for failing to “repent sincerely for their crimes”.

North Korea strictly prohibits any form of South Korean entertainment, including TV shows, movies and music.

However, some North Koreans are willing to take the risk of severe punishment to watch K-dramas, which are popular around the world.

Such footage is very rare, because North Korea does not allow any images or videos of life inside the country to be leaked to the outside world.

The video was given to the BBC by the South and North Development (Sand), a research institute that collaborates with North Korean defectors.

It indicates that the authorities are cracking down harder on such cases. The video has apparently been circulated in North Korea for the purpose of ideological education and to deter citizens from watching “corrupt materials”.

The video also features a narrator who repeats the state propaganda. “The culture of the rotten puppet regime has infiltrated even the young generation,” the voice says, referring to South Korea. “They are only 16 years old, but they have destroyed their own lives,” it continues.

The boys’ names and addresses were also revealed by the officers.

In the past, minors who violated the law in this manner would be sent to youth labour camps instead of prison, and the sentence would usually be less than five years.

However, in 2020, Pyongyang passed a law that made watching or distributing South Korean entertainment a capital offence.

A defector told the BBC earlier that he witnessed a 22-year-old man being executed by firing squad. He said the man was accused of listening to South Korean music and sharing films from the South with his friend.

Sand’s CEO Choi Kyong-hui said Pyongyang considers the spread of K-dramas and K-pop a threat to its ideology.

“Respect for South Korean society can soon lead to a collapse of the system… This contradicts the monolithic ideology that makes North Koreans worship the Kim family,” she said.

North Koreans began to enjoy South Korean entertainment in the 2000s, during the period of the South’s “sunshine policy” which provided unconditional economic and humanitarian assistance to the North.

Seoul terminated the policy in 2010, saying it discovered that the aid did not benefit the ordinary North Koreans as intended, and that it did not bring about any “positive changes” in Pyongyang’s conduct.

But South Korean entertainment still reached North Korea through China.

A North Korean defector told BBC Korean on Thursday that “if you are caught watching an American drama, you can escape with a bribe, but if you watch a Korean drama, you are killed,”.

“For North Korean people, Korean dramas are a ‘drug’ that helps them cope with their harsh reality,” the defector said.

Another North Korean defector in her 20s said that “in North Korea, we are taught that South Korea is much poorer than us, but when you watch South Korean dramas, you see a completely different world. It seems that the North Korean authorities are afraid of that,” she said.

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