As a mysterious “unidentified gastrointestinal disease” continues to spread across North Korea, Kim Jong Un has reportedly sent medicines “prepared by his family”—whatever that means—to the country’s southwest.
Sky News reported that it is believed that at least 800 families are suffering from what North Korea has only called an “acute enteric epidemic” in the South Hwanghae Province so far. Meanwhile, South Korean officials think it may be cholera or typhoid—which are both endemic and known to cause epidemics in much of East Asia and the global South. Such diseases would be devastating for a civilian population as malnourished, famished, and nutritionally vulnerable as North Korea’s.
Considering just how little information the dictatorship shared with the rest of the world when it came to COVID-19 cases and deaths—on 1 June 2022, the country reported just 70 deaths—many expect this new outbreak to put further strain on the isolated North Korean citizens as they battle chronic food shortages and a recent wave of COVID-19 infections.
The country’s state media agency, KCNA, said, “The respected General Secretary Kim Jong Un has sent medicines prepared by his family to the Haeju City, South Hwanghae Province,” adding that the controversial leader also “stressed the need to contain the epidemic at the earliest date possible by taking a well-knit measure to quarantine the suspected cases to thoroughly curb its spread.”
It has also been said that on receiving the treatments, many people in the province cried. “The people in Haeju City shouted ‘Long live comrade Kim Jong Un!’ at the top of their voice, crying in gratitude,” KCNA reported.
“They warmly cherished the benevolent image of Kim Jong Un, who devotes himself to the people with his noble idea that there is no emergency more serious than the people’s pain and there is no revolutionary work more important than easing the people’s misfortune.” Make of that what you will…
The agency said prevention efforts included quarantine, “intensive screening for all residents” and special treatment and monitoring of vulnerable people such as children and the elderly. A national “Rapid Diagnosis and Treatment Team” is working with local health officials, and measures are being taken to ensure farming is not disrupted in the key agricultural area, it added.
Sky News further noted that disinfection work is also being carried out, including of sewage and other waste, to ensure the safety of drinking and household water.
The severity of the disease, and the exact number of people affected, is as of yet unclear.
Back in 2018, a viral video of the Kpop girl group Red Velvet, who was invited by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to perform at a rare concert in Pyongyang, gripped fans on YouTube. Decked in clothes less revealing than their usual stage costumes, the group danced and sang their popular hits Red Flavor and Bad Boy. If you’ve listened to these songs before, you must know how catchy they are—it’s practically impossible to stop your head from bobbing to the beat. Yet, the 8-minute clip featured a silent audience who were, as the popular comments under the video puts it, “doing their best at the ‘try not to react’ challenge.”
Fast forward to 2021, Kim Jong Un isn’t a Kpop fan anymore. Describing the genre as a “vicious cancer” that will “corrupt” young North Koreans, the leader has been cracking down on the distribution of South Korean dramas, songs, music videos and culture altogether. In December 2020, the country enacted the “Law on the Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture”—which called for up to 15 years in labour camps for the possession of South Korean entertainment. People who were caught distributing such “foreign propaganda,” on the other hand, could additionally be sentenced to life imprisonment or even death.
Now, a human rights report by Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), has revealed that the country has publicly executed at least seven people in the past decade for watching or distributing Kpop videos from South Korea. Interviewing 683 North Korean defectors since 2015 to map places where citizens were killed and buried, the group has documented a total of 23 state-sanctioned executions under Jong Un’s government.
Although it’s impossible to uncover the exact number of public executions in the country, TJWG focused on those that have taken place since Jong Un’s ascension to leadership. The group further narrowed down on executions in Hyesan, a major trading hub bordering China.
Housing 200,000 citizens, Hyesan is the major gateway for outside information. Thousands of North Korean defectors have either lived in or passed through this city—while some even toss plastic bottles filled with rice and USB sticks featuring South Korean entertainment into the sea towards their former homeland. This is why Hyesan has become the premise of Jong Un’s efforts to stop the undesirable infiltration of Kpop into the country.
According to the report, six out of the seven executions took place in Hyesan between 2012 and 2014. A shocking set of statistics, given how Red Velvet was invited to perform in 2018. But the revelations don’t end there. The report also noted how citizens were mobilised to watch the executions, where the officials labelled the victims “social evils” before they were put to death by a total of nine shots fired by three soldiers. “The families of those being executed were often forced to watch the execution,” the report added.
Ever since North Korea tightened its border restrictions over the pandemic, defections to the South have dropped sharply—making it even harder to gather fresh information about the country. However, Seoul-based website Daily NK recently reported that a villager and an army officer were publicly executed this year in a deeper inland town for the distribution and possession of South Korean entertainment. Secretly-filmed videos of such public trials and executions have also been smuggled out of North Korea as of late.
In one of the footage broadcast by Channel A in 2020, a student was brought to the front of a crowd—including peers from the school—and condemned for the possession of a memory stick that held “a movie and 75 songs from South Korea.” In an interview with the South Korean TV station, Shin Eun-ha also narrated her experience with a public execution that she and her classmates had been made to watch from the front row. She was in second grade at the time in North Korea.
“The prisoner could hardly walk and had to be dragged out,” she said. “I was so terrified that I could not dare look at a soldier in uniform for six months afterward.”
The New York Times, reporting first on the matter, noted how Jung Un escalated his crackdown on Kpop especially after his talks with former US President Donald Trump went haywire in 2019—coupled with a deterioration of the country’s economy in recent years. “Amid growing international scrutiny of North Korea’s human rights abuses, the government appears to have taken steps to prevent information about its public executions from being leaked to the outside world,” the publication wrote.
TJWG also highlighted that the country no longer appears to execute citizens at public marketplaces. The sites have instead been moved farther away from its borders with China and major town centres. Speculators are also being inspected closely to prevent them from filming the executions.
Seeking to instil horror among citizens, Jong Un’s government has been controlling nearly every aspect of life in the North—from radios and television sets down to the access to global internet. The crackdown on South Korean entertainment has also been a priority for China following President Xi Jinping’s call for a “national rejuvenation.” As for North Korea, however, its own state media has warned that the country will “crumble like a damp wall” if the influence of Kpop is left unchecked.