North Koreans enjoy watching South Korean soap operas as much as anyone across Asia, a recent defector told Time magazine. "Many people watch them in secret, even when the police have tried to stop it," he is quoted as saying in the magazine's latest edition.
"In recent years, bootlegged South Korean dramas have been flooding into the northern neighbor -- part of a recent explosion across Asia in the popularity of South Korean TV shows and music known as the Korean Wave."
"On the black market in North Korea, American DVDs go for about $0.35; South Korean ones go for $3.75," the weekly said. "Foreign films are allowed to be shown in some contexts, such as the Pyongyang International Film Festival held every other fall, and in recent weeks state television has occasionally shown Disney films like Snow White, Cinderella and Robin Hood. But a wide selection of foreign films have always been available to the country's elites, having been smuggled in before the 1990s, though never at the rate that happens now."
Secretly distributing or watching South Korean soaps is a crime equivalent to "promoting the ideology of the enemy state." North Korean authorities have recently launched a massive crackdown on "North Korean university students, the movies' biggest audience, and smugglers at the Chinese border," it said.
The most recent crackdown began in September, after authorities caught a group of students in a university computer lab watching the new South Korean disaster film "Haeundae," according to a Seoul-based defectors' organization.
"Ten years ago, that particular crime carried a sentence of five years in a prison camp; today, enemy-propaganda watchers are usually handed a sentence of three months or less of unpaid labor," Time said. "The shift may not have been an ideological one," but "the regime made the decision because it couldn't afford to send so many people to prison camps," it speculated.
"When students are caught, they buy cigarettes for police officers to escape labor sentences, and sometimes even give officers the bootleg to watch themselves." One North Korean university student in Seoul is quoted as saying, "I used to believe strongly what the government told us -- that foreign films are crazy and violent. We used to be terrified of watching South Korean dramas... But I've opened my mind."
"It's silly to say North Koreans are so naive that they think South Korean dramas represent actual life in South Korea. They know it's entertainment," said Simon Cockerell, the general manager of Koryo Tours in Beijing, which leads tour groups to North Korea.