North Korea executed man for listening to K-pop, report from defectors shows

<span>A North Korean was publicly executed for listening to K-pop, a new report from the North Korea unification ministry states. </span><span>Photograph: Lee Jin-man/AP</span>
A North Korean was publicly executed for listening to K-pop, a new report from the North Korea unification ministry states. Photograph: Lee Jin-man/AP

A 22-year-old North Korean was publicly executed for watching and sharing South Korean films and music, a new report claims, highlighting Pyongyang’s desperate attempts to stem the flow of outside information and culture.

The case, detailed in the 2024 Report on North Korean Human Rights released by South Korea’s unification ministry on Thursday, compiles testimonies from 649 North Korean defectors.

According to an unnamed defector’s testimony, the young man from South Hwanghae province was publicly executed in 2022 for listening to 70 South Korean songs, watching three films, and distributing them, falling foul of a North Korean law adopted in 2020 that bans “reactionary ideology and culture”.

The report details extensive efforts by North Korean authorities to control outside information flow, especially targeting the youth.

Other instances of crackdown include punishments for “reactionary” practices such as brides wearing white dresses, grooms carrying the bride, wearing sunglasses, or drinking alcohol from wine glasses – all seen as South Korean customs.

Mobile phones are also frequently inspected for contact name spellings, expressions, and slang terms perceived to be of South Korean influence, the report claims. While both Koreas share the same language, subtle differences have emerged since the division after the Korean war of 1950–53.

The ban on K-pop is part of a campaign to shield North Koreans from the “malign” influence of western culture that began under the former leader, Kim Jong-il and intensified under his son Kim Jong-un.

In 2022, the US government-funded Radio Free Asia said the regime was cracking down on “capitalist” fashion and hairstyles, targeting skinny jeans and T-shirts bearing foreign words, as well as dyed or long hair, it said.

Experts say that allowing South Korean popular culture to seep into North Korean society could pose a threat to the ideology that demands absolute loyalty to the “infallible” Kim dynasty that has ruled the country since it was founded in 1948.

Despite such harsh measures, the influence of South Korean culture, including recent television shows, appears unstoppable, according to a recent North Korean defector.

“The speed of South Korean culture influencing North Korea is seriously fast. Young people follow and copy South Korean culture, and they really love anything South Korean,” a woman in her early 20s who defected from North Korea told reporters at a briefing in Seoul.

Even with the border to China largely sealed off after the outbreak of Covid-19, information is still seeping through and being distributed through informal networks.

In recent weeks, North Korea has sent thousands of balloons over the border containing waste, retaliating against the launch of balloons from the South whose cargo includes anti-Pyongyang leaflets, dollar bills, and USB sticks loaded with K-pop and K-dramas.

“After watching Korean dramas, many young people wonder, ‘Why do we have to live like this?’ … I thought I’d rather die than live in North Korea,” the defector told reporters.

The woman, who escaped from North Korea on a wooden boat last October, also shed light on the hidden resentment against the regime.

“Of course we cannot say anything bad against Kim Jong-un publicly, but among close friends, lovers or family members, we do say those words,” she claimed.