This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A North Korean used-clothing trader who kept two South Korean banknotes she found in a bundle of garments was hauled away by state security agents in June and hasn’t been heard from since — the victim of a tightening crackdown on foreign cultural influences, sources in the reclusive state told RFA.
The incident in the port city of Nampo is part of a stepped-up enforcement of laws passed last year designed to halt the spread of foreign influences, in particular, the spread of popular music, movies, and TV shows from South Korea, which many North Koreans have long embraced in secret.
“These days, there are very severe crackdowns on the possession or use of South Korean goods,” a resident of Nampo told RFA on Tuesday.
The campaign is enforcing the Rejection of Reactionary Thought and Culture Act passed in December 2020 in a rare session of Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the law would be “certainly observed by all the institutions, enterprises, organizations and citizens.”
The law had the goal of “further cementing our ideological, revolutionary, and class positions by thoroughly preventing the inroads and spread of the anti=socialist ideology and culture and firmly maintaining our idea, spirit and culture,” KCNA said.\
Punishments include up to 15 years in a prison camp for those caught with media from South Korea, and punishments for the production or distribution of pornography, the use of unregistered televisions, radios, computers, foreign cellphones, or other electronic devices, according the Daily NK, a Seoul-based website that reports from sources inside North Korea and had obtained details on the law.
The woman arrested by the State Security Department in Nampo this summer buys bundles of used foreign clothes and sells them individually at a local market, the source said.
Two years ago, she found two 10,000 South Korean won notes, worth a total of U.S. $17.12, in some clothing, and kept them. When she showed the two bills to a fellow retailer at the market, she was reported to authorities, and state security officials swiftly came to search her house and arrest her, the source said.
“The State Security Department is digging up the source of the money by investigating the wholesaler who delivered the goods to the woman and the one who sold the clothes to the wholesaler,” he said.
The garment trader has been detained by the State Security Department for more than two months, and no one knows what kind of punishment she faces, the source said
“The neighbors sympathize with the woman who had a good heart and had a good relationship with her neighbors, he added. “They are criticizing the informant as ‘a woman who doesn’t know how to distinguish east, west, north, and south.’”
“Unfortunately, even if she is charged with treason and punished, there is nowhere for her to complain,” said the source, who declined to be named in order to speak freely. It was not clear whether the trader faces treason charges.
Money of the ‘puppet’ country
In July, a state security agent in charge of a district in Nampo led a local neighborhood watch unit meeting and told the group that a resident who had kept the money of a “puppet” country had been found in the area, and warned the locals to avoid South Korean products, said the source.
Similar arrests are occurring elsewhere in the country of 25 million people that has been run by leader Kim Jong Un and his father and grandfather before him as a rigid one-party dictatorship since 1948. Pyongyang often slanders South Korea as a “puppet” of the United States.
A state security agent in charge of the Sunam district of Chongjin, capital of North Hamgyong province, appeared at a meeting of a neighborhood watch unit there and repeatedly threatened that anyone who was caught communicating with the “enemy” South Korea or possessing the belongings of “puppets” would not be forgiven, a resident of the province told RFA.
“The son of an acquaintance I know had a mobile phone made in South Korea and was arrested by the State Security Department, and it turned out that that is why the security agent attended the neighborhood watch unit meeting to warn the residents,” said the source who declined to be named for safety reasons.
The young man told authorities he found the South Korean Samsung mobile phone at a dumping ground near his house several months before the arrest, said the source.
“South Korean mobile phones are popular here and they are sold at high prices in the market,” he said adding that North Koreans who can obtain Samsung cell phone modify them to use locally.
The youth’s father thought his son would be released immediately, after a favorable evaluation by the neighborhood watch unit and the company where he worked, but he remains in custody, said the source.
“The State Security Department seems to be continuing to investigate, assuming that he kept on communicating with South Korea because of the fact that he did not report his mobile phone voluntarily, even though there was a large-scale propaganda project to purge the ‘yellow wind of capitalism,” he said.
The “yellow wind” is a North Korean term dating to the 1990s that refers to “anti-socialist” influences in society, especially cultural imports from capitalist countries.
Caught up in crackdowns
The resident of North Hamgyong province said that many people across the country are getting caught in such crackdowns.
“In the past, law enforcement agencies, including the State Security Department, took bribes from those who had power or money, while blaming the people with no money and power, in order to achieve arrest results,” the source said.
North Korean authorities have gone to great lengths to cut off South Korean influence and punish those who consume South Korean culture.
RFA reported in May 2020 that authorities were checking students’ text messages for South Korean spellings and slang.
In February 2021, RFA reported that police were cracking down on vehicle window tinting, which North Koreans were using to hide their surreptitious viewing of South Korean videos, labeling the practice as part of the “yellow wind of capitalism.”
Authorities ordered those with tinted windows to replace the windows or be fined for violating the Rejection of Reactionary Thought and Culture Act.