K-pop stars get heard. G-Dragon (back left), T.O.P, Taeyang, with Seungri (front left) and Daesung. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
K-pop stars get heard. G-Dragon (back left), T.O.P, Taeyang, with Seungri (front left) and Daesung. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Just weeks – or even days – after a popular song or new episode of a TV show has been released in South Korea, it will be enjoyed across the border in the homes of North Koreans, too.

Smuggling of foreign culture and information, as well as portable media players, to the North is an increasingly lucrative business amid the rise of a black market for banned and politically sensitive goods.

Indeed, even on the sidewalks of the capital of Pyongyang, small street stalls can be seen selling foreign films and animations, including Disney titles such as Aladdin, Finding Nemo and Beauty and the Beast, as well as Russian and Indian productions.

A 2012 report by Intermedia, based on interviews and surveys with North Korean defectors, concluded that a “substantial numbers” of North Koreans are able to access outside media. About half of those interviewed said they had watched foreign DVDs, and some 27% said they had listened to foreign radio, such as such as South Korean state broadcaster KBS, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, and 24% had watched foreign TV.

South Korean K-pop superstars like Park Jae-sang (a.k.a. Psy), Kwon Ji-yong (a.k.a. G-dragon) and Choi Si-won from the boy band Super Junior, or TV and and movie celebrities such as Kim Hee-sun, Lee Min-ho or Lee Young-ae, could in other words be household names among youngsters in the North.

Access to foreign culture and news has the potential to ultimately break up the North Korean regime’s monopoly on information, and help the people to understand the gap between the rosy picture that the authorities paint of their country and its leaders – and the far grimmer reality.

A teenage girl I spoke with in Seoul said culture smuggling to the North could bring people on the Korean Peninsula closer to each other. “If they listen to ‘Gangnam Style,’ they will understand us much better,” she said. “That would be very positive”.

However, the underground cultural revolution in the North has a dark side: It’s partly run by drug lords and corrupt military officers.

Jieun Baek, author of a new book called “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society”, concludes that despite the threat of punishment by North Korea’s security forces, distributing foreign media has become a profitable business.

Read: Thanks for the memory cards; North Koreans return from China 

North Korea currently derives much of its economy from drug production and trafficking, currency counterfeiting, and money laundering, and the illicit networks that support such activities have also created distribution opportunities for foreign media, she said in a recent article in Foreign Affairs.

“Today, a motley crew of foreign non-governmental organizations, defectors, smugglers, middlemen, businessmen, and bribable North Korean soldiers and officials have cobbled together a surprisingly robust network that links ordinary citizens to the outside world through contraband cellphones, laptops, tablet computers, and data drives,” she said.

Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, explains that exiled North Korean NGOs and other groups contribute to the flow of information, but they are far from being the dominant players because for-profit networks have come up to supply this demand.

“Like all things in North Korea, successful smuggling requires either local officials’ direct involvement in the enterprise or, at a minimum, bribes paid to get them to look the other way,” he told Asia Times.

Illegal activities are flourishing in the North, according to several reports. For one, it has a massive narcotics market, mainly production and export of methamphetamine.

Read: North Korea ‘friend’: Madonna caused Soviet Union’s collapse

In 2010, Chinese police seized US$60 million worth of North Korean meth, likely only a fraction of what was actually shipped worldwide. The country is reportedly also engaged in human trafficking, with people being used as forced labour abroad, and women and girls being trafficked to China for forced marriage or sex work.

The driving force behind the smuggling is North Korea’s military police, which operates outside of the control of the normal authorities, sources inside the country has told Radio Free Asia.

“Most smuggling has been carried out by soldiers, and it’s particularly difficult to smuggle in massive quantities without the help of the military police,” a source in North Hamgyong province on the border with China recently told RFA’s Korean Service.

Smuggled goods also include precious metals, such as gold, silver, copper, nickel, industrial diamonds and molybdenum, as well as historical items, cultural artifacts and drugs, it said.

But smuggling of culture is getting increasingly dangerous because of the growing collaboration between North Korea and China’s security agencies that is aimed at shutting down the illegal cross-border movement of goods, stopping North Koreans from leaving their country, and blocking outside information from coming into North Korea, Robertson of Human Rights Watch added.

North Korea regularly ranks at the bottom of press freedom indexes. According to Freedom House, “listening to unauthorized foreign broadcasts and possessing dissident publications are considered ‘crimes against the state’” in North Korea and “carry serious punishment, including hard labor, prison sentences and the death penalty.”

The British head of the world’s largest support group for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has said that the Soviet Union collapsed partly because it allowed Madonna, Pepsi and other manifestations of “imperialist bourgeois ideology and culture” to manipulate its people and politicians, but concluded that North Korea would never fall for that trap.

But despite the strict restrictions in place, many North Koreans are able to watch foreign films on DVDs and USBs smuggled into the country like never before.

Jieun Baek writes that every young North Korean defector she has met had watched foreign films and shows, had read foreign books, and knew a decent amount about the world outside the country before defecting.

Min Jun, a recent defector in his early 20s, said: “In our generation, young people get together quietly in each other’s homes, put on South Korean K-pop, and have a little dance party. We have no idea if we’re doing it right, but we dance with the music on low.”

Follow Johan Nylander on Twitter: @johannylander

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