This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Netflix’s popular Korean-language TV hit “Squid Game” has made it to reclusive North Korea, as smuggled copies of the violent drama are spreading despite the best efforts of authorities to keep out foreign media, sources in the country told RFA.
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, the sources said.
“Squid Game has been able to enter the country on memory storage devices such as USB flash drives and SD cards, which are smuggled in by ship, and then make their way inland,” a resident of the city of Pyongsong, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service.
The premise of the show has resonated with the rich people of Pyongyang, the source said.
“They say that the content is similar to the lives of Pyongyang officials who fight in the foreign currency market as if it is a fight for life and death,” the said the man, who had watched the show at his money-changer brother’s house in Pyongyang.
“They think the show’s plot kind of parallels their own reality, where they know they could be executed at any time if the government decides to make an example out of them for making too much money, but they all continue to make as much money as possible,” said the source.
“It not only resonates with the rich people, but also with Pyongyang’s youth, because they are drawn to the unusually violent scenes. Also, one of the characters is a North Korean escapee and they can relate to her,” the source said.
“They secretly watch the show under their blankets at night on their portable media players.”
A resident of North Pyongan province, bordering China, told RFA that the show has caught on with the smugglers who move goods in from China at great risk in the face of the draconian border closures and restrictions on movement that North Korea has imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus.
“Smugglers in particular are immersed in the show because they feel as though they are in a similar situation. They risk their lives to smuggle things in from China despite enhanced border security during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
North Korea made its normally porous border with China hard to cross, adding up troops, declaring a one km kill zone along the border, and laying landmines to prevent its people from escaping, all under the premise of stopping the spread of COVID-19.
Smuggling has, however, continued, and the government has publicly executed smugglers and their accomplices during the pandemic.
Watching Squid Game may be a deadly risk in itself. The government last year passed a new law on the “Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture,” which carries a maximum penalty of death for watching, keeping, or distributing capitalist media, especially from South Korea and the U.S.
“Law enforcement is not playing around with the new law, and they are fiercely trying to root out every instance of capitalist culture,” the second source said.
“But times are tough due to the pandemic, so even the police are struggling to make ends meet. Putting a few bucks in their pocket will make them go away if you get caught watching South Korean media. So that means more and more people here will watch Squid Game moving forward.”
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 June of that year, authorities began punishing people caught using a specific sarcastic phrase that appeared in a South Korean drama because it was seen as disrespectful to the country’s leader Kim Jong Un.
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.”
An August 2019 Washington Post report documented how certain aspects of 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.