Maurice John Casey examines the subversive effects of foreign television on North Korean society.
The most notable thing about North Korea’s longest running entertainment show It’s So Funny is how inappropriate the show’s title seems. It’s offensively unfunny, even by the standards of a despotic nuclear state.
One of the longest running comedy shows in history, It’s So Funny has been broadcasting it’s own brand of state sanctioned comedy since the early 1970s. The target audience, the North Korean military, makes up almost half of the population, and the show’s hosts wear olive green military dress. A typical sketch based on bean production ends on the punchline “If we farm in the way the General tells us, we will become happy.” A resounding round of applause greets this line. The applause, however, is entirely devoid of laughter.
The comedic failure of It’s So Funny evidences the state’s paranoia; humour is by its nature subversive, therefore the state’s provision of comedy must lack humour. Slapstick is common, satire is non-existent. The attempt to disguise the propaganda is even weaker than the jokes, yet for generations few North Koreans dared to try and see through it.
The relentless efforts by the regime to blockade the entry of outside media are, however, proving increasingly futile. The advent of CDs and USB keys has made smuggling South Korean programming into the country so much easier. This is beginning to change everything.
“The reverent Korean Central Broadcasting Service finally has an alternative. In one year KCBS spent thirty five per cent of its on-air time praising Kim Jong Il.”
The reverent Korean Central Broadcasting Service finally has an alternative. In one year KCBS spent thirty five per cent of its on-air time praising Kim Jong Il and a further thirty per cent telling workers to toil harder for the affection of the Dear Leader. Percentages you should recall next time you think ‘ah shite, there’s nothing on the TV.’ Yet foreign media is very much a dangerous alternative that carries with it the risk of imprisonment in the North’s expansive gulag system.
Surveys of defectors and sources inside the country prove that this is a risk people are willing to take. For the first time in the history of North Korea a critical generation is emerging, a generation who view the party’s broadcasts as inherently unreliable. Culture is smuggled past the watchful, but easily bribed, border police and consumed by an underground audience. The youth of North Korea, particularly those living in the border cities along the porous Chinese/Korean frontier, have been accessing South Korean media for the best part of a decade.
Media is now easily found on the black market along with Chinese mobile phones, used for calls only a few minutes long to evade tracing. A connection to the outside world is becoming tangible, available to more than just the elites. Finding fellow aficionados of outside influence is easy; a defector now living in the South noted that listening out for South Korean slang in conversation could reveal who else is “listening in.”
There is little the police and party officials can do to seal the fissures in the information blockade. The security services once relied on the tactic of cutting power to blocks of flats and entering apartments to inspect DVD players. Without a source of power the discs could not be ejected, the incriminating South Korean DVD was locked inside. Now however, a USB key can simply be pulled out and hidden from the secret police.
Nevertheless, the act of turning on a South Korean soap is an elaborate act of dissidence. One defector, speaking to InterMedia, described it as ‘psychological war’; “I have to block the windows and curtains and closely guard the entrance door. Then I lock the door and listen with an earphone… The whole scene of me watching a drama is worthy of its own drama show.”
South Korean soaps, which feature blue collar workers living in large apartments with refrigerators and TVs, unthinkable luxuries in the North, are watched eagerly and discreetly by many citizens. North Koreans commit this act of televised treason to be entertained rather than indoctrinated when they turn on their TVs. Yet the prevalence of this crime against the state evidences a burgeoning desire for outside information and a semblance of the truth.
When asked whether the efforts of Radio Free Europe had influenced the Solidarity movement in Poland, Lech Walesa replied “Would there be Earth without the Sun?” The potential for outside media to create the first significant crack in the North Korean regime cannot be underestimated.
Five stations now broadcast into North Korea from the outside. They provide reports targeted at those seeking factual news and advice on escaping the country. By contrast, the state media has become staid and repetitive with its constant fixation on ideological plotlines and praises sung to the regime. Andrei Lankov, a North Korean analyst, notes that the greatest praise a North Korean can give a film is that it lacked ideology.
On the flipside of all of this is the popular South Korean show Now on My Way to Meet You. Think Take Me Out but with the overly made-up, South Dublin hotties replaced by North Korean refugees. They sing, they dance and they speak bluntly about the oppression they have escaped. Criticised as ‘feminization of refugees,’ the show is nevertheless bringing the refugee issue to the fore, and that can’t be a bad thing.
The North has nothing of the calibre of Now on My Way to Meet You in terms of entertainment value, nor in terms of an honest portrayal of Korean life, and this is the critical flaw that is pushing its subjects to seek out an alternative, even at the risk of imprisonment. An image of the relative freedom and prosperity of the outside world, being broadcast across the border between the two Koreas, is facilitating the coming collapse that will make that border defunct.