This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea has sentenced to death a man who smuggled and sold copies of the Netflix series “Squid Game” after authorities caught seven high school students watching the Korean-language global hit show, sources in the country told RFA.
The smuggler is said to have brought a copy of Squid Game into North Korea back from China and sold USB flash drives containing the series. Sources said his sentence would be carried out by firing squad.
A student who bought a drive received a life sentence, while six others who watched the show have been sentenced to five years hard labor, and teachers and school administrators have been fired and face banishment to work in remote mines or themselves, the sources said.
RFA reported last week that copies of the violent drama had arrived in the reclusive country despite the best efforts of authorities to keep out foreign media. They began spreading among the people on flash drives and SD cards.
Sources in that report said that the show’s dystopian world — in which marginalized people are pitted against one another in traditional children’s games for huge cash prizes and losing players are put to death — resonates with North Koreans in risky occupations and insecure positions.
“This all started last week when a high school student secretly bought a USB flash drive containing the South Korean drama Squid Game and watched it with one of his best friends in class,” a source in law enforcement in North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.
“The friend told several other students, who became interested, and they shared the flash drive with them. They were caught by the censors in 109 Sangmu, who had received a tipoff,” said the source, referring to the government strike force that specializes in catching illegal video watchers, known officially as Surveillance Bureau Group 109.
The arrest of the seven students marks the first time that the government is applying the newly passed law on the “Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture,” in a case involving minors, according to the source.
The law, promulgated last year, carries a maximum penalty of death for watching, keeping, or distributing media from capitalist countries, particularly from South Korea and the U.S.
“Residents are engulfed by anxiety, as the seven will be mercilessly interrogated until the authorities can find out how the drama was smuggled in with the border closed due to the coronavirus pandemic,” said the source.
“It means that the bloody winds of investigation and punishment will soon blow,” said the source, implying that a lengthy investigation would reveal the chain of distribution as each new person under investigation would be forced to tell where they got their copy from and who else they shared it with.
Punishments will not stop with the smuggler and students who viewed the video, however, as others with no connection to the incident will also be held responsible, according to the source.
“The government is taking this incident very seriously, saying that the students’ education was being neglected. The Central Committee dismissed the school principal, their youth secretary, and their homeroom teacher,” the source said.
“They were also expelled from the party. It is certain that they will be sent to toil in coal mines or exiled to rural parts of the country, so other school teachers are all worrying that it could happen to them too if one of their students is also caught up in the investigation,” said the source.
In the aftermath of the students getting caught, authorities began scouring markets for memory storage devices and video CDs containing foreign media, a resident of the province told RFA.
“The residents are all trembling in fear because they will be mercilessly punished for buying or selling memory storage devices, no matter how small,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“But regardless of how strict the government’s crackdown seems to be, rumors are circulating that among the seven arrested students, one with rich parents was able to avoid punishment because they bribed the authorities with U.S. $3,000,” the second source said.
“Residents are complaining that the world is unfair because if parents have money and power even their children who are sentenced to death can be released.”
RFA attempted to contact Netflix for comment but received no response.
An August 2019 Washington Post report documented how certain South Korean media are considered dangerous by North Korean authorities because they encourage people to escape. K-pop and American pop music has had an instrumental role in undermining North Korean propaganda, it said.
It also cited a survey 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 accessing foreign media became more dangerous since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011, said the survey by South Korea’s Unification Media Group.
Squid Game is Netflix’s most watched show ever, ranked first in 94 countries and viewed in 142 million homes worldwide after only a month, according to the company’s third quarter earnings report.
The show is even more popular than those figures indicate.
RFA reported in mid-October that Squid Game was pirated on around 60 streaming sites in China, according to South Korea’s ambassador to China, who asked Beijing to take action over illegal viewing.