This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea has ordered residents of the capital Pyongang to report the number of televisions in each household to stop them from watching banned shows from prosperous, democratic South Korea, sources in the country told RFA.
In North Korea, access to media from the outside world is strictly controlled, and TVs and radios are manufactured to only pick up domestic channels and must be registered with the authorities. But residents do find ways to access South Korean signals, either by using foreign televisions or modifying domestic ones.
Getting caught during routine inspections with a TV that can pick up illegal signals is a punishable offense. Residents with more than one television hide their illegal TVs during inspections, only to bring them out again to watch Seoul’s latest hot drama or variety show, former residents told RFA.
Authorities are aware of the deception and have issued a directive that every household in the city declare to their local neighborhood watch unit how many televisions they have.
“Residents are trying to hide them, but the judicial authorities are trying to find them. They are looking for TVs that can get South Korean TV channels in addition to the ‘official’ channels,” said a resident of Pyongyang, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
“Everyone knows that in Pyongyang, South Korean TV signals can be picked up in various areas,” the source said. He mentioned the Mangyongdae and Rangrang districts in the center of the city of 2.8 million.
In these areas the residents have been known to have two or three televisions in their homes, so they can watch the legal channels during inspections and watch South Korean broadcasts in secret,” the source said.
The source said that residents have developed clever ways to hide their illegal TVs.
“There will soon be a fierce game of hide-and-seek between law enforcement and the citizens of Pyongyang. They put them in cabinets, closets and wardrobes to make it difficult for the police to find,” the source said.
“No matter how strict the authorities are during this crackdown, it’ll be difficult to stop people from watching South Korean channels. If you’re able to afford two or more televisions, you’re either an official or very rich. How can the authorities hope to crack down on these people?” said the source.
Another source, a Pyongyang official, said that illegal signal tuning was rampant in the city, which lies 100 miles (160 km) from the border with South Korea.
“I know that people these days freely discuss South Korean TV broadcasts with those they trust. They like to see the free-spirited lifestyles of South Koreans living in abundance. They can live vicariously through the people they see on TV to forget the frustrations of their own reality,” the second source said.
“The number of households that have purchased one or two extra televisions have increased, so the police have instructed each neighborhood watch unit to accurately report the number of televisions in each household,” the second source said.
Severe punishments are in line for people who fail to report accurately.
“They shall be kicked out of the party, removed from their posts, or sent into internal exile. But most of the powerful officials and the rich have multiple televisions, and they know how crackdowns are conducted.”
Not everyone in Pyongyang is able to access South Korean broadcast signals because the frequencies are jammed, according to Kim Seung-chul, a North Korean escapee who is now president of South Korea-based North Korea Reform Radio.
“I don’t know if it is possible in the center of Pyongyang, but I know they do it on the outskirts,” Kim told RFA.
Kim’s organization conducted a survey of North Korean refugees in South Korea about their access to foreign media when they lived in North Korea. Many said they were able to watch South Korean TV, especially those living near the coast or the Demilitarized Zone that divides North from South.
Those who live near North Korea’s border with China are able to watch South Korean content broadcast on Chinese channels.
A 2015 report circulated by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said that North Koreans living near the border with South Korea own more than one TV set specifically to watch South’s programs, some of which enjoy global popularity that have generated significant soft power for the South.
“In North Korea, South Korean broadcasts are watched after 9 p.m. They cover the windows with blankets so that the television light cannot be seen from the outside,” the report said.
‘Capitalist cultural invasion’
North Korean authorities revised the Criminal Law in 2015, raising the maximum sentence to 10 years in prison for “capitalist cultural invasion,” a vague term that refers to watching or listening to media from outside North Korea.
The country’s leader Kim Jong Un in 2017 personally ordered the “destruction of non-socialist phenomena.”
The Rodong Shinmun, North Korea’s official newspaper, warned youth in May 2020 not to view foreign media, saying, “If you cannot remain vigilant against a single movie or a song, and imitate it, the national culture will gradually become discolored, and the rotten lifestyle of materialism will prevail.”
South Korea’s GDP is 54 times the size of the North’s, while its population of 51 million is twice that of North Korea.
In June 2020, RFA reported that a specific sarcastic phrase uttered in a South Korean drama that authorities saw as disrespectful to Kim Jong Un had become popular among North Koreans of all ages, and that the government was scrambling to find ways to eliminate the phrase.
A 2019 report in the Washington Post said South Korean media is considered dangerous to North Korean authorities because it encourages 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.
The report 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, and is distributed on USB flash drives and SD cards.