A recent study found that TVs and DVD players have "reached near ubiquity in North Korea across nearly all demographic, socio-economic and political class divides." Some shops in Pyongyang offer DVDs and video CDs for sale, as shown here. Foreign movies or videos are often stored instead on USB sticks or micro SD cards and sold on the black market. Photo: NPR

On a night drive from North Korea’s east coast to Pyongyang, the driver stopped at a floodlit guard post. A rare American visitor who was riding in the car asked for whom the guards were searching.

“Impure elements,” was the answer.

“What’s that mean?”

No one would say, at first. “You know,” said one of the North Koreans in the car. “You know who they are.”

The visitor kept pestering them and finally one of the North Koreans explained: “They are spies, people trying to destroy the system. We shoot them.”

Impure elements, then, were South Korean or American agents – including saboteurs. To guard against them, rifle-carrying soldiers were posted at highway and railway bridges.

In many countries these days fashions, including popular buzzwords, change with the passage of decades or even years. In North Korea, not so much.

There, the third-generation Kim family regime, with its incessant propaganda, seeks with considerable success to keep linguistic and other fashions aligned with the preferences of Kim Il Sung, the founding ruler (born 1912, took power 1946, died 1994).

This writer had that encounter at the guard post in 1979, a year when American men were casting off bellbottoms, which had come into fashion around 1967 but were no longer considered fab; the more fashion-conscious instead were getting their groove on in skin-tight trousers.

As for North Korea? This month you can still hear the country’s propaganda machine railing against the “impure.” A new article from Daily NK, a Seoul-based news organization whose reporters communicate with people inside North Korea by phone, illustrates.

“North Korea recently distributed ‘explanatory materials’ to the Socialist Patriotic Youth League emphasizing the struggle against watching or distributing ‘impure recorded materials’” such as movies and TV shows from South Korea and other countries, it says.

In the materials, North Korean authorities claimed the failure to stop the secret viewing and distribution of “strange, decadent” recordings has been “tarnishing a healthy social atmosphere.” The materials warned that “once you get a taste, you just cannot stop and, in the end, you will find yourself up to your neck in treason and betrayal, just as the nation’s enemies intended.”

In particular North Korea called secretly watching or smuggling in and distributing impure recordings, “when the imperialists’ ideological and cultural intrusion schemes are growing crueler than ever,” an “act of treason fundamentally no different from pointing a gun at your fatherland and its people when they are suffering.” The materials further said that “if you’re still going around with hidden impure recordings of a strange and decadent nature, watching them, smuggling them or illegally selling them, we can only call this an intentional act to drag our youth into fantasies about capitalism and rotten bourgeois lifestyles.”

Photo: YouTube

Such domestic propaganda campaigns, while a constant, typically are cranked up to higher pitch at times when domestic conditions are especially poor – when the regime may think it has reason to worry about the effects of negative, only partially outsider-influenced public opinion on its long-term survival prospects.

Indeed, things lately have been approaching a 21st-century low point. The economy hangs by a thread after three years of a zero-Covid policy, even more extreme than that of the Chinese, that has involved an almost total stoppage of foreign trade.

Credible reports tell of sky-high prices in North Korea for essential commodities, of starvation and deaths from Covid combined with preexisting conditions (malnutrition, in particular) and of lack of medications.

The regime of Kim Jong Un, third in the line of family rulers, despite some outsiders’ predictions when he took power at twenty-something, has survived the consequences of Kim dynastic mismanagement for a decade.

But outside analysts still have to wonder whether for Kim’s subjects there’s a lower limit to which they have yet to descend and beneath which – regardless of the impure consequences – they will be mad as hell and won’t take it anymore.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, where there appears a version of this article’s lead anecdote. Follow him on Twitter @bradleykmartin