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Crackdown on foreign videos catches North Korean military officers

North Korean soldiers watch from tower on the North Korean side Military Demarkation Line. (SRA JEFFREY ALLEN/WikiCommons)
February 28, 2022

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korea has punished more than 10 military officials after they were caught in possession of “impure” video files–South Korean TV shows, Japanese porn and Hollywood films–as a crackdown on illegal foreign media shifted to focus on high-ranking men in uniform, military sources told RFA.

Though citizens of North Korea are forbidden to watch or listen to media from outside the country, foreign TV shows, music, and movies are smuggled in on easily concealable SD cards and USB flash drives. They are then distributed widely among the populace through the black market.

Nervous about all this exposure to outside information, Pyongyang in December 2020 passed the draconian Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture Law, which carries a maximum penalty of death for watching, keeping, or distributing media from capitalist countries, particularly from South Korea and the U.S.

To enforce the law, it tasked a strike force called Surveillance Bureau Group 109 with seeking out and arresting violators.

Many civilians caught by Group 109 over the past year have been sentenced to hard labor, life in prison, or even death, but now the strike force is turning its eyes on high-ranking military officials.

“Since the beginning of January, the General Political Bureau of the People’s Army started an intensive inspection on the use and possession of ‘impure’ video media,” a military source in the capital Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service Feb. 14.

“Some of the military officers were found to be in possession of impure videos after an inspection conducted by the 109 Joint Inspection Team, made up of members of the General Staff Department, the Ministry of Defense and the State Security Department, under the direction of the General Political Bureau,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The inspection targeted senior officers who own computers or have access to them as part of their duties, and those who have mobile phones, the source said.

“A member of the 109 Joint Inspection Team, to who I am close, said that about 10 officers who stored impure recordings and watched them from time to time have been punished, so the military command is getting nervous,” the source said.

“An official of a trading company directly under the Ministry of Defense was caught with three South Korean movies, 10 Japanese pornographic movies, and seven South Korean dramas, including ‘Crash Landing on You,’ and ‘Descendants of the Sun,’ and five American movies… he was punished after the inspection,” he said.

The two South Korean TV shows named by the source are of particular concern to North Korean authorities due to their subject matter. “Crash Landing on You” is about a South Korean woman who mistakenly crosses the border into North Korea and falls in love with a North Korean soldier, while the main protagonist of “Descendants of the Sun” is a South Korean Special Forces soldier.

The trade official was in a high position in the Ministry of Defense, and this was not the first time he had been caught with foreign media.

“Three years ago, they caught him with South Korean dramas, Japanese porn, and other foreign movies, but they generously forgave him. He was given clemency due to his outstanding performance in foreign trade for the ministry, but this time he will be severely punished in a military trial, with the new Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture law in effect,” the source said.

“The inspection also caught a military officer who was the adjutant to the general of the Ministry of Defense. He had three South Korean adult magazines and 20 South Korean superstitious materials on his laptop,” the source said.

The officer was put under the investigation by the Military Security Command of the Korean People’s Army, according to the source.

“His superior, a general, was even demoted and dismissed from his position. He is now in a lower-level combat unit.”

The crackdown’s turned its attention to senior military personnel after a whistleblower told the General Political Bureau that that there were banned videos among the entirety of the military command structure, a military source in the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA.

“During the inspection, a military officer working in the communication unit directly under the Command Information Bureau of the General Staff Department was caught with an SD card containing one South Korean movie, 27 South Korean dramas and 40 South Korean songs,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“After they caught him, they began a large-scale inspection of the cellphones on senior unit officers under the Ministry of Defense and General Staff Department,” said the second source.

The military authorities were embarrassed and nervous after the inspection revealed many officers with impure videos at the higher-level units in Pyongyang, the second source said.

“In an internal directive, the General Political Bureau told all the political departments of each unit to take responsibility and cooperate with the 109 Joint Command,” the second source said.

“All units are nervous as they announce that the 109 Joint Command will begin random inspections… of all the units where someone was caught in the crackdown this time.”

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.