Rare footage appears to show North Korean teens being punished for watching K-dramas

Story by CNN

A South Korean research group has released rare footage that it claims shows North Korean teenagers sentenced to hard labor for watching and distributing K-dramas - which are banned in the hermit nation.

The narrated footage released last Friday shows the two teens standing on a stage in an amphitheater filled with hundreds of people wearing white shirts, who appear to be students.

The teens, flanked by two adults in military-style uniforms, stand facing six more adults, all seated at three tables to the rear of the stage.

"Not long ago, a public trial was held," the narrator says, naming the two teens and saying they were caught "watching and distributing puppet regime's recordings."

North Korea often refers to South Korea as a "puppet regime."

The narrator says the pair watched and distributed dozens of South Korean movies and TV shows, and that each was sentenced to 12 years of labor.

"They were only 16 years old, just at the beginning of their lives. However, they were seduced by foreign culture, ultimately ruining their future paths," the narrator says.

The names of the teens' homeroom teachers also appear on the screen.

The Seoul-based South and North Development Institute (SAND Institute), which works with North Korean defectors, obtained the recording and distributed it to media outlets. The video, which shows the audience in the amphitheater all wearing masks, is believed to have been filmed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

For decades, North Korea has been almost completely closed off from the rest of the world, with tight control over what information gets in or out. Foreign materials including movies and books are banned, with only a few state-sanctioned exceptions; those caught with foreign contraband often face severe punishment, defectors say.

Restrictions softened somewhat in recent decades as North Korea's relationship with China expanded, and parts of South Korean pop culture seeped into the country when relations thawed between the two neighbors. But those ties have since fast deteriorated, with strict rules snapping back into place in the past few years and a crackdown on foreign media.

Under three generations of rule by the Kim family, North Korea has become one of Asia's most impoverished countries, even as the regime pours money into its military and nuclear weapons programs.

Meanwhile, living standards are far higher in South Korea, which has become one of world's top economies.

Choi Kyong-hui, the director of the SAND Institute, said the video indicated the North Korean government is threatened by its population being exposed to culture from the South.

"You can see how wary the North Korean regime is about spreading and watching Korean dramas. By disclosing the names, address and pictures of the violators, you can see the regime's will to hold people accountable," Choi said.

"By adding people's names who are indirectly related to this incident, you can tell the regime is intending to shame and destroy their social reputation by doing so."

In 2020, North Korea adopted the "Anti-reactionary Ideology and Culture Act," banning its population from distributing, watching or listening to any South Korean cultural content. Violations are punishable by years of hard labor for small quantities of banned material and even death for larger amounts.

In one section of the video the text of the act is displayed on the screen, indicating it was produced sometime after the its adoption in December 2020.

South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) told CNN it could not verify if the video was genuine, but said the agency was "monitoring related movements as North Korean authorities are strengthening surveillance and punishment for the inflow of external videos."

North Korea's ban on all things South Korean extends beyond all forms of entertainment to include mannerisms, vocabulary - and even hairstyles.

In 2021, a South Korean lawmaker who attended a briefing by the country's spy agency said Pyongyang was implementing strict rules on how young people dress and speak. For instance, South Korean women often use the term "oppa" for their romantic partners - it's now forbidden in the North. Instead, North Korean women must refer to their lovers as "male comrades."

Propaganda videos in the country also denounce behaviors that show "foreign influence" such as public displays of affection, the lawmaker said, citing South Korea's NIS.