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Report: North Korea executed at least 7 people for watching movies, K-pop from South Korea

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), also, North Korea, People's Army guards march in formation to their appointed posts during a repatriation ceremony in the Panmunjom Joint Security Area. (TSGT James Mossman/U.S. Air Force)
December 15, 2021

North Korea has put to death at least seven people in the past decade for watching or sharing South Korean movies, television shows and music, such as K-pop, according to a new report by the Transnational Justice Working Group released this week.

The South Korea-based human rights group interviewed 683 North Korean defectors since 2015 for its latest report, which documents locations in the North where people were ​killed and buried​ in state-sanctioned public executions. The report documented 27 total accounts of state-sanctioned killings, including “seven documented cases of individuals being charged with watching or distributing South Korean media before execution.”

According to the New York Times, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has taken a particularly strong stance against K-pop music, referring to it as a “vicious cancer” that corrupts young North Koreans’ “attire, hairstyles, speeches, behaviors.” 

Under a law adopted last year, those who distribute South Korean entertainment face punishment up to the death penalty. Even before this law passed, the Transnational Justice Working Group’s report shows North Korea has used executions in the past against those caught with South Korean media.

Of the seven executions for viewing and sharing South Korean media, six took place in the northern city of Hyesan, in the Ryanggang province, between 2012 and 2014. The seventh killing took place in 2015 in Chongjin City in the neighboring North Hamgyong province.

The Ryanggang province borders China. The city is a major gateway for the flow of outside information into North Korea. While all North Korean radio and televisions are only configured to allow government broadcasts, North Koreans have snuck in illegal South Korean media saved on memory sticks across the border with China.

Executions in North Korea are often carried out in public. Of the 27 executions the Transnational Justice Working Group documented, 23 were carried out in public. Of those 23 public killings, 21 were by firing squad and two were by hanging.

One interviewee told the Transnational Justice Workin Group that public killings used to be open to a large crowd, but in more recent years the executions have mainly been put on for specific groups affiliated with those being executed, such as an accused person’s coworkers. The families of those being executed were also often forced to watch the killing. Neighborhood leaders were also commonly called upon to organize their neighborhoods to attend and view executions.

While the Transnational Justice Working Group’s report documented North Korean executions in previous years, the practice of harshly punishing citizens for consuming South Korean media continues. Last month, Radio Free Asia reported a North Korean man was sentenced to death for smuggling in and selling copies of the Netflix series “Squid Game,” a South Korean production that became widely popular on the streaming platform.