15 years in a slave labour camp – just for listening to pop music in North Korea

Published by The Mail on Sunday (11th July, 2021)

Three years ago, North Korea’s ‘Supreme Leader’ Kim Jong Un clapped along to songs at a concert by famous pop stars who were visiting from his country’s despised neighbour South Korea.

The portly dictator posed for pictures and chatted to the musicians about their performances, which included a song called Our Wish Is Unification. According to state media, the show left him ‘deeply moved’.

But he has since changed his tune. Kim brands such music a ‘vicious cancer’, warning that South Korean pop stars are corroding his country and corrupting his nation’s youth with subversive fashions, hairstyles and slang.

Kim has passed draconian laws to crack down on ‘non-socialist’ pleasures – with the death penalty for bringing such tunes into the country and up to 15 years in a slave labour camp simply for listening to them. 

The moves are part of a clampdown that has seen his right-hand aide fired, women ordered to wear traditional dress rather than fashionable short skirts, and disciplinary units checking text messages on teenagers’ mobile phones.

The reason is simple: this secretive, nuclear-armed nation of 26 million people, ruled by a sinister family that relies on fear and death camps, is facing its biggest crisis this century as a result of the pandemic.

The country – which claims to be the only place in the world without Covid – has seen its economy collapse after closing borders with China (its main trading partner), leading to such food shortages that Kim has warned citizens to prepare for famine.

And he fears the young may have less loyalty to his Orwellian regime after seeing glimpses of the outside world through films, soap operas and pop songs smuggled into the Hermit Kingdom.

‘The dilemma for dictators is they have total control but they never know when it will end,’ said Soo Kim, a former CIA North Korea analyst now at the Rand Corporation think-tank. ‘He’s probably become very paranoid.’

The situation is so fraught that last week it needed the traditional annual visit to the mausoleum for his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, to quash rumours that Kim had been forced from power by his uncle after suffering a brain haemorrhage.

Kim was joined at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – a massive edifice where, eight years ago, I watched North Koreans weep as they bowed before the embalmed bodies of his father and grandfather – by his sister and a posse of senior party officials.

One key figure was noticeably absent from official photographs: Ri Pyong-chol, a relative of Kim’s wife who led the nuclear weapons programme and was thought to have become the tyrant’s most important aide.

The former air force chief was reportedly dismissed from the five-person politburo after Kim spoke about a ‘great crisis’ and blamed officials for serious failures in the ‘prolonged state emergency epidemic prevention campaign’.

Analysts believe the moves indicate either a severe Covid outbreak in Pyongyang, the capital city reserved for North Korea’s pampered elite, or that Kim discovered that emergency food reserves were empty.

At least Ri was not executed – unlike another family member who was decapitated, the corpse left on the steps of a government building with the head placed on top, according to Kim’s alleged boasts to Donald Trump during their ill-fated talks.

That K-pop concert in Pyongyang came amid efforts to defuse tensions, both with Washington and its southern neighbour with whom North Korea is technically still at war after an armistice in 1953 ended the first military conflict of the Cold War.

As a result of closing borders with China, Covid, destructive typhoons and a dreadful harvest, Kim’s economy is struggling badly.

The latest crackdown began when the Supreme Leader set up a new organisation to ‘eradicate’ the ‘perverted puppet words’ which the regime assumes people have picked up from watching South Korean TV dramas. 

Words of endearment such as ‘oppa’ (a romantic term for older brother) and ‘dong-saeng’ (meaning younger sister, brother) are banned, with the traditional greeting ‘comrade’ insisted on.

There is also a punitive ‘Law on the Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture’ that tripled maximum penalties for possession of contraband.

Reports have emerged of police ordering parents to change South Korean-style names given to children and of security squads prowling streets to check people’s clothing and hairstyles are suitably dowdy.

Men’s hair must not be too long. Women must not wear tight clothes. The young must hand over mobile phones to check for messages that might contain foreign phrases such as ‘See You’ or ‘TY’ (‘Thank You’)

One source told a Japanese news agency: ‘If there are any expressions in the text messages that are not used in North Korea, the owner of the device will be suspected of watching South Korean dramas and will be interrogated. Inspectors also check for any rumours or complaints about difficulties due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Students take care to delete text messages after sending them.’

This is high-risk: even the two-year sentence in a labour camp for using slang could prove fatal, since many detainees perish amid the brutal conditions in these gulags that hold an estimated 200,000 people.

Last month, Kim wrote a letter to the Socialist Women’s Union demanding that women wear traditional attire, support their husbands and ensure that homes are ‘happy places’.

The man running the world’s most horrific dictatorship wrote: ‘When women become tender-hearted daughters-in-law, beloved wives, considerate mothers and kindly neighbours, our society will always be full of a vitality.’

Kim said their ‘noblest revolutionary work’ was to raise children in the correct way, warning women to protect their sons and daughters from ‘alien ideology’.

His crackdown follows the success of defectors and human rights groups in undermining his regime’s brainwashing of North Koreans by smuggling in computer flash drives and compact discs of films, soap operas, music and books.

I have spoken to defectors who say they realised they had been fed lies about living in ‘paradise’ only after watching foreign films or soap operas. One said that something as innocuous as the movie Titanic made her appreciate the real meaning of love.

I also joined the dissident Park Sang-hak, once a devout believer in the Kim dynasty cult, as he sent a barrage of home-made balloons flying north over the border, each carrying bags full of anti-Kim propaganda. 

He was branded Public Enemy No 1 and there have been several attempts on his life and even missiles fired south in response.

Eight months ago, South Korea’s parliament was accused of appeasing the dictatorship when it banned the flying of such material over the border.

Yet a recent survey of 200 people who fled North Korea found that almost all had seen South Korean videos before leaving. 

This was symbolised by a young North Korean soldier who was shot as he sprinted across the demilitarised border zone before being dragged to safety. He surprised doctors in the South Korean capital Seoul by knowing all eight names in a prominent pop group.

‘The impact of such cultural infiltration should not be underestimated,’ says Professor Rudiger Frank, a North Korea expert raised in East Germany. ‘I can confirm this from my own experience. Governments in socialist Europe lost the hearts of their citizens long before the actual revolutions.

‘The ideological danger to the regime is real but it’s unclear when this will lead to actions. Think about a big old tree: it looks strong but then it cracks after a strong storm and only then you see that it has been hollowed out for many years.’

The fissures are biggest in the ‘Jangmadang [market] generation’ – people in their 20s and 30s who grew up during terrible famine in the mid-1990s, which may have killed two million, with emaciated corpses left to rot on the streets.

Sparked by the end of Soviet support after the Cold War, the crisis saw state food distribution collapse – thus breaking ties of loyalty to the regime as people relied on smuggling from China and newly emerged markets to survive.

Youngshik Bong, a fellow at Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul, says support of the young for the regime, unlike older generations who went through the war and were loyal to the leader and party, is ‘more conditional and they are more exposed to the outside world’. 

This is Kim’s own generation – he is 37, was educated in Switzerland and has a young family to continue the dynastic dictatorship. Soon after taking control in 2011, he was shown on state television with a pop group in mini-skirts playing the theme song from Rocky alongside Disney characters such as Minnie Mouse.

Bong says Kim knows he must appeal to the young and that was why he appeared in April at a gathering of low-level party members where he warned people to prepare for another ‘Arduous March’, their term for the famine. 

Two months later, he admitted ‘the people’s food situation is getting tense’ as the pandemic, border closures, sanctions and corruption combined. There are reports of plant closures, rising homelessness, widespread malnutrition and street children scavenging for food as prices soar. 

A news outlet in South Korea has reported shampoo selling for £145 a bottle and a kilogram of bananas costing £33.

One North Korean was quoted as saying that ‘shouts of anger are everywhere in the market’, where they heard ‘the sobbing of those who can’t afford the high prices’. 

Even the obese Kim has shed some weight, most likely on health grounds after he swelled to an estimated 22st and disappeared from the public eye on several occasions last year, leading to speculation that he might be sick.

In an unprecedented television event, this was discussed briefly on state television two weeks ago. ‘Seeing [Kim] become emaciated like that, we all became so sad,’ said one man in Pyongyang. ‘Everyone just started to cry.’

Analysts noted that Kim was wearing old, baggy suits to show off his weight loss. ‘The last thing you want at a time of hardship is for the leader to look like he carried on gorging,’ said Jenny Town, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center think-tank.

During the famine, Kim’s gluttonous father, Kim Jong Il, sent his chef to buy the best fish from Japan and caviar from Iran while his people were dying from hunger. Any food stocks in the country were diverted to the elites and military.

Now, as belts tighten again in North Korea, his slimmed-down son’s big fear is that pop songs and soap operas might help to destroy this revolting regime that enslaves an entire nation to serve the needs of a single family.

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