Myung Chul-jin, a recently defected North Korean living in Seoul, recalls there were some good times in Pyongyang: evenings with friends when they watched smuggled South Korean soap operas and American films like Superman Returns and Titanic. "North Koreans love foreign dramas," says Myung, using an alias to protect his family living in the North. "Many people watch them in secret, even when the police have tried to stop it."
In recent years, bootlegged South Korean dramas have been flooding into its northern neighbor — part of a recent explosion across Asia in popularity of South Korean TV shows and music known as the "Korea Wave." The nation's films and dramas have become so widespread in across the country that the regime launched a crackdown this fall on North Korean university students, the movies' biggest audience, and smugglers at the Chinese border, charging some with promoting the ideology of the enemy state. "The government is terrified of the ideas North Koreans are getting about the outside world," Myung says. "The people are starting to ask, 'Why are we poor?' And they point to South Korea."
The state-run media in the North has long derided South Korea's "decadent foreign culture and ideals," and has banned nearly all South Korean, American and Japanese films in favor of 1960s Soviet and Chinese films rife with revolutionary ideas. Yet foreign films have always been available to the country's élites, having been smuggled in before the 1990s though never at the rate that happens now. Even Kim Jong Il, the country's dictator, is said to own a library of more than 20,000 foreign and North Korean films.
"I used to believe strongly what the government told us — that foreign films are crazy and violent. We used to be terrified of watching South Korean dramas," said one North Korean university student in Seoul, who remains sympathetic to the regime. "But I've opened my mind."
"There are lots of stories on that from the defectors," says Lee Jong Ju, deputy spokesperson of Seoul's Ministry of Unification. "They said they can see [South] Korean soap operas in North Korea, and then that could be one of the reasons they decided to go to South Korea," says Lee.