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.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is reportedly in a coma, so his sister Kim Yo Jong has been exercising her control over national and international matters. South Korean politician Chang Song-min said to the press “I assess him to be in a coma, but his life has not ended,” and added that the dictator’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, 33, is in prime position to take over some of his powers. With a significant lack of public appearances this year, suggesting that some truth is being hidden, what is Jong-un’s true condition and is his health deteriorating?
Jong-un underwent a heart operation earlier this year, which sparked rumours that the politician was left in a critical condition, or even dead, however these speculations were squashed in May when images of the leader opening a fertiliser factory were released.
North Korea has also started to publish updated advice on smoking, with Jong-un being a heavy smoker himself, an anti-smoking research centre launched the “Anti-smoking 1.0” on the country’s computer network. The website is not accessible from outside North Korea, as the state’s internet is strictly controlled.
The advice that has been given to the public is hence unclear, but it is said to contain science-based information key to the anti-smoking campaign. North Korea revised a law last year to restrict imports of foreign cigarettes and prohibited electronic cigarettes including vapes, and also expanded no-smoking zones in public spaces, which shows a huge step up to support anti-smoking efforts.
Despite all of this, Jong-un failed to give up the habit himself. The most controversial side to this news is that all photographs of the leaders that were released by the North Korean press have been reported as fake. With public information being so controlled by the government, it is hard to declare the truth to what is actually going on, but the increasing secrecy around the situation has led us to believe that there is something worth hiding.