For North Korean defector Yeonmi Park, it was Titanic. For another defector, Chongyang Joo, it was Charlie’s Angels.
For many of those living in the Hermit Kingdom, it’s illicit South Korean soap operas and Chinese television. And for any citizens of the Kim Jong Un dictatorship, the penalty for consuming non-approved films or television shows is hard labor, prison, or death.
But regardless of the potential punishment, North Korean defectors claim that exposure to Western and South Korean media has inspired them to rebel against their oppressors. In fact, countless North Koreans risk their lives every day to watch foreign films, desperate to learn about the world outside of their communist country.
Yeonmi Park saw a friend’s mother be publicly executed for watching a contraband DVD. But not even the threat of death can suppress the urge to live vicariously through Jack Dawson and James Bond.
These young defectors are part of what Park, now 21, calls North Korea’s Black Market Generation: millennials who rebel against the brutal conformity of the regime by trading USB sticks containing foreign films, television shows, and music.
“My generation has a very different view of the society than generations before us,” Park told me in October at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a yearly gathering of dissidents and activists from around the world. “Even though many North Koreans risk their lives to access this information, they do it as a kind of rebellion against the regime.”
And the Kim regime is doing everything in its power to prevent Hollywood’s influence from corrupting American minds, too, accused of launching a cyberattack on Sony Pictures that led the company to cancel its release of The Interview, a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco as two journalists tasked by the CIA with assassinating Kim.
The FBI formally accused the DPRK on Friday of being behind the attack, weeks after hackers first breached Sony’s system, exposing Hollywood executives’ private emails and other data.
Pyongyang has denied any involvement, but weeks after the initial leak of Sony data, the hackers threatened theaters planning to show the film (“We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time”), offering vague references to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In June, the North Korean government declared the film a “wanton act of terror” and an “act of war,” vowing “merciless” retaliation against the U.S. if the movie was released.
“Film, more than any other medium, has the ability to transmit ideas of liberty throughout the world,” says Thor Halvorssen, founder and president of the Human Rights Foundation in New York City, which has delivered bootleg DVDs, educational pamphlets, and USB drives from South Korea into North Korea via hydrogen balloon drops.
Other activist groups based in South Korea, like Park Sang Hak’s Fighters for a Free North Korea, have also orchestrated airdrops of money and materiel into North Korea. (Park Sang Hak worked for the North Korean government before escaping to South Korea 15 years ago, and has since survived an assassination attempt by agents of the DPRK.)
Halvorssen’s organization is planning another balloon launch in January as part of a larger initiative to funnel information into the Hermit State. “The Human Rights Foundation had a board meeting where it agreed to dramatically step up on North Korean activities involving smuggling educational materials into North Korea using all routes: land, air, and radio wave.”
Indeed, history has shown us just how much of a threat schlocky Hollywood entertainment is to totalitarian governments. During the Cold War, the United States devoted significant resources to transmitting American values behind the Iron Curtain through film, radio, and literature.
It was frequently—and convincingly—claimed that the availability of television shows like Dallas helped undermine the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.
And to defectors from North Korea like Park and Jang, Hollywood films are a huge allure. Even the most banal movies, like the romantic comedies and Disney fairytales Park remembers watching (Pretty Woman, Cinderella), convey ideas that are alien to the average North Korean, who has been trained to worship the communist regime and Kim Il Sung, the founder of the DPRK, as the country’s heavenly father.
Anything that challenges this narrative of devotion to leader and country—especially films that stress the triumph of the individual—threatens totalitarian rule.
If innocuous love stories are enough to challenge the mindset of North Korea’s youth, imagine the cultural potency of a film like The Interview.
“It shows how the regime is a laughing stock to the rest of the world, because of how they’ve ruined the country and oppressed their people,” says Henry Song, U.S. director of Inside NK, an NGO that produces video testimonies of North Korean defectors.
It’s not just the footage of Kim Jong Il’s head exploding that could plant seeds of rebellion; it’s an entire movie exposing the country’s human-rights violations.
And if The Interview ever made it into the totalitarian state, it would likely proliferate among the rebellious Black Market Generation. North Korea’s millennials are increasingly facilitating a free flow of information, obtaining it from traders who enter the country through China and distributing it with each other.
“For the Black Market Generation, it’s a form of social capital,” says Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for Liberty North Korea, an international NGO that works with defectors. “You’re cool if you have access to this illegal foreign stuff.”
He compares distribution of foreign media in North Korea to the illegal drug trade in the U.S. “They have their own language and code words, and everyone knows a guy at the top. But the key difference is that you can pass media on once you’ve consumed it, or you can copy it onto a USB stick and pass that along.”
And since visual media is more compelling than any other medium, it is consistently their drug of choice. “Why would they listen to the radio when they can see the outside world?”
According to Park, North Korean millennials subtly—and often secretly—mimic what they see in foreign media, particularly when it comes to fashion. They dye their hair and alter their clothes, but not enough to attract attention from authorities.
This quiet self-expression is merely social signaling, but it’s indicative of a growing anti-establishment culture. “Defectors cite this changed awareness when they say why they defected,” says Park, noting how the Black Market Generation’s motivation to escape is no longer simply about survival, as it was for defectors who came before them.
Jieun Baek, a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, says North Korean women were eager to learn about Western fashion brands when she visited the country in 2013.
“I was amazed that they were already familiar with the names of big designers like Christian Dior,” says Baek. “This is a country where women are allowed to wear one of 14 hairstyles.”
Even if they don’t have the means to revolt against the regime, North Korea’s millennials are growing up with access to information that may ultimately provoke an uprising, just as it did across the Soviet Union. “For a while, the only manifestations of change were people defecting to West Germany,” says Park. “When the conditions were right, there was a critical mass. We may be seeing the same kind of change in North Korea.”