The impact of soap operas on North Koreans

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has issued increasingly pointed warnings to his subjects about the “poisonous elements of capitalism” crossing China’s border with the North. South Korean intelligence reported hearing that Kim was so shaken by the spread of DVDs of soap operas that he ordered the execution of 10 Worker’s Party officials accused of succumbing to the shows’ allure.

But despite a crackdown, the country has seemed unwilling, or unable, to fully dismantle the smuggling networks that bring in not only banned soap operas, movies and K-pop videos, but also much-needed trade.

Defectors say the soaps have had an outsize impact, less for their often outlandish plots than their portrayals of the creature comforts of South Korea—a direct contradiction to decades of indoctrination about the inferiority of the South, and capitalism.

It was those portraits of wealth, Jeon Hyo-jin said, that inspired her to make the dangerous decision to flee in 2013 at the age of 18. “The kitchens with hot and cold tap water, people dating in a cafe, cars clogging streets, women wearing different clothes each day—unlike us who wore the same padded jacket, day in day out,” said Ms. Jeon, who lives in Seoul. “Through the dramas, I learned how strange my own country was, how full of lies.”

Most of the border trade is driven by money, defectors said, not ideology, but some defectors and pro-democracy groups also help arrange for the contraband material to be smuggled into the North. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” said Chung Kwang-il, a defector, who runs a smuggling operation.

Analysts and defectors alike say there are limits to how much outside entertainment can accomplish. A recent study by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification of 149 recent defectors showed that more than eight in 10 had been exposed to South Korean movies or songs before fleeing the North. But most of them lived in areas close to China, where it is easier for smugglers to maneuver, and it is unclear how widely such entertainment has spread.

Still, the defectors say that the soaps are a potent tool for exposing North Koreans to the outside world.

[New York Times]

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