(This article first appeared on 38North)
In early December 2020, a plenary meeting of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), its highest legislative body, approved several new laws, including one called the Reactionary Ideology and Culture Rejection Law. While the text of the law was not made public outside of the North, anecdotal reports since indicate that this has prompted a widespread crackdown on foreign content and influence in the country.
The current campaign does appear more intense and far-reaching than citizens have faced in recent years, although it is difficult to judge the full extent of these measures or effect of the law, in part, due to a lack of foreign observers inside the country, and in part due to communications restrictions imposed by the law itself.
However, North Korean documents about the law detail the full extent of its reach, outlining harsh new punishments—up to and including execution for the most severe violations—and bans on such behavior as even speaking in a “South Korean” style.
Considered alone, the new law takes the state’s battle against foreign information to a worrying level not seen for many years, but the law has not appeared in a vacuum. The country has almost totally sealed its borders shut since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, shutting down nearly all smuggling routes. Last year it began strengthening its border with the addition of a second fence and new electronic monitoring systems designed to keep people in and foreign culture out.
North Korea shows no signs of reducing its pandemic protections anytime soon, so smuggling likely remains all but impossible until that happens. And even when it does, it is difficult to know if the border will go back to its old ways or if the current protocols will remain in place. If the latter happens, there is a real worry North Korea could be stepping much further back into the information dark ages.
North Korea’s battle against foreign culture began in the 1980s with VHS tapes from Japan. Foreign media has always posed a threat to the state, which uses the Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD) to ensure all North Korean media sends the same message to citizens.
The VHS tapes were eventually replaced by physically smaller digital formats that were easier to smuggle. First, it was Video CDs and DVDs, then USB memory sticks and now fingernail-sized MicroSD cards.
Demand inside the country also grew as word of foreign movies and TV shows spread. Many defectors say illicit consumption of foreign media was the norm among peers and even those charged with enforcing the law. When crackdowns did occur, it was often possible to escape punishment with a bribe.
Restrictions regarding the foreign media environment seemed to be easing at one point, when the harshest penalties surrounding foreign media in North Korea’s Criminal Code shifted from consumption to distribution in the years from 2009 to 2015. It appeared that the state recognized it had lost the battle against consumption and turned its attention to the providers instead.
However, in late January 2020, when North Korea sealed its borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state achieved something—at least temporarily—it had been unable to do for years: stopping the physical flow of foreign content into the country.
When delegates converged on Pyongyang in early December 2020, the new law on reactionary culture was one of the top agenda items.
At the time, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the law set out the principles to which citizens, institutions and organizations should follow to cement “ideological, revolutionary and class positions by thoroughly preventing the inroads and spread of the anti-socialist ideology and culture and firmly maintaining our idea, spirit and culture.”
The full text of the law was not published, but four pages describing a portion of it were obtained by the Seoul-based Daily NK and shared with 38 North.
The document covers articles 27 to 33 of the law, which spell out criminal punishments for a series of violations, from mass distribution of South Korean movies to the use of South Korean slang and fonts. The penalties range from dismissal from jobs for minor offenses to death for the most severe crimes; financial penalties for some crimes are specified as well. Together, this helps indicate what content and actions are feared most by the North Korean state.
South Korean Content
When it comes to smuggled content from overseas, the largest and highest demand inside North Korea is for South Korean movies and TV shows. For the regime, however, this material represents one of the greatest perceived threats to the nation’s ideological purity. Because the two countries used to be one, concerns linger that unfavorable conclusions will be drawn about the competency of the North’s leadership based on the vast difference in development of the two nations. As such, South Korean content attracts the harshest punishment.
Article 27 of the law says the import or distribution of South Korean movies, TV shows, songs and books is punishable by an indefinite period of reform through labor or death. For people convicted of organizing or encouraging group viewing of the content—considered the highest level of crime—the punishment specified is death.
The punishment for those caught watching or possessing the same content is five to 15 years of reform through labor.
While accounts vary, reform through labor is generally understood to involve hard manual labor inside a political prisoners’ camp. When prisoners are not working, they are undergoing ideological indoctrination sessions. The overall aim of the camp is to ensure that those released are never tempted to break the law again. Some accounts say the conditions are so harsh, many prisoners do not survive their sentences.
This is not the first time the death penalty has been handed out in relation to foreign content, but its use had been thought to be waning. It was often used in the late 1990s and early 2000s by Kim Jong Il, but recorded cases dropped in recent years. The last execution related to South Korean media documented by the Transitional Justice Working Group, for instance, was in 2013/2014, according to its 2019 report.
But since the new law has been announced, executions related to South Korean media are reportedly occurring once again. Daily NK reported a Wonsan man was executed in April for selling CDs and USBs with South Korean content, and four in Pyongyang were executed in March for selling and distributing South Korean material. It also reported that six students in Nampho were sentenced to five years in a reeducation camp for watching South Korean movies.
A step below South Korean content in severity is movies, TV shows and other material from countries judged hostile to North Korea, which, according to the document, includes the US and Japan.
Article 28 of the law deals with importing and distributing movies, TV shows and books from such nations and punishes those convicted with up to 15 years of reform through labor; however, that jumps to an indefinite period or death in the case of a “large amount.” (The document does not specify what constitutes a “large amount,” and this ambiguity is likely by design.) For simply watching or possessing such content, the penalty is up to ten years of reform through labor.
Another target of the law is pornography, which has always been harshly punished. Article 29 says anyone who watches or possesses pornography or “books, photos and pictures that preach sex or superstition” will be sentenced with five to 15 years of reform through labor.
An indefinite period of reform through labor is possible for those who import or distribute the content, rising to death depending on volume or if collective viewing is organized or encouraged.
The law also punishes the making of pornographic content with an indefinite period of reform through labor.
Article 30 targets content from countries that is “inconsistent with the socialist ideology and culture and our ways of life.” This is a wider catch-all category that can include content from even friendly nations that is judged to offend. Watching or keeping such material carries a punishment of reform through labor for up to five years, while importing and distributing such materials can carry a sentence of five to 15 years.
Article 32 of the new law moves beyond simply the consumption of South Korean media, but targets the larger impact that has had on society. It states:
“A person who speaks or writes in the South Korean style, sings a song in the South Korean style, or produces printed materials in a South Korean font shall be punished by training through labor or by reform through labor for up to two years depending on the circumstances.” The difference between “training through labor” and “reform through labor” is unclear.
According to defectors, the use of South Korean slang, especially among youths, is one of the things security services check for in on-the-spot street inspections of smartphones. Getting caught using South Korean slang in text messages now, for instance, can carry a sentence of up to two years of reform through labor.
Article 33 targets those who turn a blind eye to any of these illegal activities. Anyone who is aware of foreign media content or pornography being imported, distributed or consumed and does not report it can be subject to training through labor. The length of the training is not defined in the document.
North Korean Content and Chinese Phones
Under the new law, it is not just foreign content that can get North Koreans in trouble. The regime’s tight control of media and centrally controlled messaging means that there are times when even domestically produced material can become prohibited. One of the most well-known examples of this was the scrubbing of Jang Song Taek from all state media (ever) following his arrest and execution in 2013.
The new law includes an article targeting the distribution and viewing of domestic content that “has been nationally suspended,” with a sentence of at least three months of reform through labor. This hints that a (domestic) market does exist for content previously published by state media that is later withdrawn.
The same punishment is also levied on three other acts: unlawfully making recordings or printed matters, possessing a foreign mobile phone and installing a “mobile phone manipulation program” (ways to work around domestic mobile network restrictions).
And finally, there is a range of fines spelled out in the law targeted at both individuals and institutions.
For context, all televisions, radios and personal computers in North Korea must be registered with authorities. TVs and radios brought in from overseas are modified so they cannot tune in to foreign broadcasting stations. Computers are also required to run North Korean surveillance software, but some defectors say it is common for citizens to either ignore the registration requirements and keep the device in secret or to bribe officials to forego the software installation.
Under the new law, fines from 10,000 to 50,000 North Korean won can be imposed for watching or keeping North Korean material that has been taken out of circulation; from 50,000 to 100,000 won for using a TV, radio or computer that hasn’t been inspected and registered with authorities, or for using a mobile phone with a propaganda-blocking app or other “impure” content; and from 100,000 to 200,000 won for creating photos, drawings or writings that “do not fit our ways of life and national customs” or for educating your own children “in an irresponsible manner.”
There are bigger fines levied on institutions, organizations and workplaces where offenses occur.
The largest of these, at between 1 million and 1.5 million won, is for “creating space for bringing in and distributing reactionary ideology and culture by violating the established order.” This includes ignoring import inspections on foreign electronic, radio, TV or printing equipment or for “not correctly controlling Internet or computer network management.”
The latter appears to be targeted at lax monitoring of Internet use by employees and students at institutions that are allowed access, such as foreign trading firms and universities.
A smaller fine of between 500,000 to one million won is threatened on organizations that ignore rules on registration and inspection of electronics, radios, TVs and printing equipment.
Companies and organizations can also be ordered to suspend business or close completely if the infractions are judged to be severe enough.
Article 39 allows the state to confiscate any money made through any acts that violate the law.
In addition to the fines, the new law also targets workers. Customs officials who let foreign content into the country and teachers or managers at organizations or schools where workers and students are caught with offending material are threatened with unpaid labor, demotion or dismissal for allowing the misdeeds to happen.
North Korea’s complete legal framework for dealing with foreign content and culture has never been published, but based on what has been smuggled out in the past, this new law represents a significant step up in punishments. When taken with increased border restrictions, it appears the state has taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to tighten its grip on the North Korean people. This is a troubling development and could pose a real threat to future efforts to get uncensored information into the country.