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North Koreans learn South Korean-style sarcasm from K-dramas, upsetting authorities

Cast of Love in the Moonlight (tenasia10/WikiCommons)
June 07, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korea is cracking down on the use of a specific sarcastic phrase uttered in a South Korean drama on the grounds that it is disrespectful to leader Kim Jong Un, amid an ongoing effort by authorities to eliminate South Korean cultural influences on the reclusive country.

The phrase, from the show “Crash Landing on You” can be directly translated into English as “Are you the general?,” but in the international release of the series, the official translation renders it as “Are you a general or what?” Both translations rob the phrase of its sarcastic nuance, which is more akin to “Who died and made you the general?” or “You think you’re the general or something?”

As Kim Jong Un is often referred to colloquially as “The General,” authorities see the utterance as mocking the Supreme Leader’s absolute authority.

“People are starting to quote lines from popular South Korean dramas so law enforcement has launched an investigation,” a resident of North Hamgyong province, who requested anonymity to speak freely told RFA Friday.

“Law enforcement authorities have launched an investigation because some of the South Korean-style speech is [being used to] criticize the highest dignity,” said the source, using an honorific title to refer to Kim Jong Un.

“Judicial officers are using their crackdown capabilities to investigate [how South Korean media is entering the country],” the source said.

The source said the phrase about the general is now a common part of North Korean speech.

“Since late last year, it’s become popular for people to ask each other, ‘You think you’re the general or something?’ to point out when someone inexperienced or young is acting stuck-up and thinks they are above themselves,” the source said.

By using the phrase, people are not only giving each other good-natured ribbings, they are also simultaneously mocking Kim Jong Un, the source added.

The trend of South Korean-style speech spreading throughout North Korea is a major concern for North Korean authorities, who have to live in the shadow of the more prosperous, democratic South. RFA reported last month that North Korean youth were the target of a crackdown for sharing illegal content on their smartphones.

In that report, sources said the youth would not only be punished for sharing South Korean movies or underground music, but also for texting to each other using South Korean spellings or slang. It has now become trendy for people north of the DMZ to model their speech after the upper-class residents of Seoul.

“Many are interested in talking with a South Korean accent, so they watch South Korean dramas and become more and more addicted,” the source said.

“At first, people took the question at face value. The hidden meaning of ‘Are you a general?’ was not fully understood, but now people know more about its satirical nature,” the source added.

The source said that the authorities became alarmed when the phrase became widespread, but they initially did not understand what it meant.

“The Security Department and the police actually launched an investigation into ‘You think you’re the general or something?’ trying to find where it came from. They were not aware of the meaning, but since the end of last year, they have been cracking down on people using the phrase,” said the source.

Another source, a resident of South Pyongan province who requested anonymity for legal reasons told RFA on Saturday that the phrase was spreading there as well.

“A line from the South Korean drama ‘Crash Landing on You’ is becoming a part of everyday speech,” the second source said.

“When people want to mock someone for being stuck-up or arrogant, they will say, ‘You think you’re the general or something?’” said the second source.

“In the past, people held the utmost respect for the highest dignity, but not anymore. Now people use these kinds of South Korean phrases more often than using the term ‘highest dignity’ in their daily lives,” said the second source.

The second source said that the second meaning of the phrase, to mock Kim Jong Un, has driven its popularity.

“There’s a reason why people like to ask each other if they are the general. The people are unhappy with Kim Jong Un’s behavior of still clinging to nuclear and missile development even though the economy and people’s livelihoods are at rock bottom due to U.S. economic sanctions and the coronavirus crisis,” said the second source

The sanctions, aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash and resources that could be funneled into its nuclear and missile programs, place restrictions on certain items that can be legally imported into North Korea. The result has been disastrous for those tied to the country’s emerging market economy.

But authorities want to maintain the people’s respect for Kim Jong Un, so they are trying to prevent the influx of South Korean media into the country.

“Law enforcement is trying to discover the distribution channels of video CDs and SD cards containing South Korean dramas like ‘Crash Landing on You,’ but they are one step behind,” the second source said.

“Before they are investigated, people are able to hide or discard their video records before they are investigated. But the slang and sarcasm they learned from these South Korean shows remain in their minds.”

“Crash Landing on You” is about a South Korean woman who is set to enter an arranged marriage, but she ends up in North Korea after mistakenly paragliding across the inter-Korean border. She is found by a member of the North Korean Special Police Force who agrees to secretly help her return to the South, but they fall in love, causing complications with her family and fiancé once she returns to the South, a contrived plot that is typical of K-dramas.

The phrase “You think you’re the general or something?” is said during a scene where the woman wants to express her thanks to the hospitable group of North Korean soldiers, that are aiding her return to the South, by hosting an informal awards ceremony. One of the soldiers says, “You think you’re the general or something? Who are you to give us awards?”

An August 2019 Washington Post report documented how certain aspects of South Korean media are considered dangerous to North Korean authorities because they encourage North Koreans to escape. Sources in that report said that K-pop and American pop music has had an instrumental role in undermining North Korean propaganda.

It also cited a survey by South Korea’s Unification Media Group (UMG) of 200 North Korean escapees living in South Korea, in which 90 percent said they consumed foreign media while living in the North, with 75 percent saying they knew of someone who was punished for it. More than 70 percent said they believed that it became more dangerous to access foreign media since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011.

Media from South Korea and other countries usually enters the North from across the porous Chinese border. In the past, it was distributed on copied CDs, but now it comes on more-easily-hidden USB flash drives and SD cards.