North Korea bans any kind of ‘foreign influence’–slang, jeans and foreign films; Penalty: death

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This picture taken on July 25, 2019 and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 26 shows North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watching through binoculars as a new-type of tactical guided short-range missile is launched at an undisclosed location in North Korea. - North Korea said on July 26 that two missiles fired under the supervision of leader Kim Jong Un the day before were newly designed tactical weapons that sent a "solemn warning" to the South over plans to hold military drills with the United States. (Photo by KCNA VIA KNS / KCNA VIA KNS / AFP) / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS / THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE --- /

North Korea has recently introduced a sweeping new law which seeks to stamp out any kind of foreign influence – harshly punishing anyone caught with foreign films, clothing or even using slang. But why?

Imagine being in a constant state of lockdown with no internet, no social media and only a few state controlled television channels designed to tell you what the country’s leaders want you to hear – this is life in North Korea.

And now its leader Kim Jong-Un has clamped down further, introducing a sweeping new law against what the regime describes as “reactionary thought”.

Anyone caught with large amounts of media from South Korea, the United States or Japan now faces the death penalty. Those caught watching face prison camp for 15 years.

And it’s not just about what people watch.

Recently, Mr Kim wrote a letter in state media calling on the country’s Youth League to crack down on “unsavoury, individualistic, anti-socialist behaviour” among young people. He wants to stop foreign speech, hairstyles and clothes which he described as “dangerous poisons”.

The Daily NK, an online publication in Seoul with sources in North Korea, reported that three teenagers had been sent to a re-education camp for cutting their hair like K-pop idols and hemming their trousers above their ankles. The BBC cannot verify this account.

Analysts say he is trying to stop outside information reaching the people of North Korea as life in the country becomes increasingly difficult.

Millions of people are thought to be going hungry. Mr Kim wants to ensure they are still being fed the state’s carefully crafted propaganda, rather than gaining glimpses of life according to glitzy K-dramas set south of the border in Seoul, one of Asia’s richest cities.

The country has been more cut off from the outside world than ever before after sealing its border last year in response to the pandemic. Vital supplies and trade from neighbouring China almost ground to a halt. Although some supplies are beginning to get through, imports are still limited.

This self imposed isolation has exacerbated an already failing economy where money is funnelled into the regime’s nuclear ambitions. Earlier this year Mr Kim himself admitted that his people were facing “the worst-ever situation which we have to overcome”.

What does the law say?

The Daily NK was the first to get hold of a copy of the law.

“It states that if a worker is caught, the head of the factory can be punished, and if a child is problematic, parents can also be punished. The system of mutual monitoring encouraged by the North Korean regime is aggressively reflected in this law,” Editor-in-Chief Lee Sang Yong told the BBC.

“In other words, the regime concluded that a sense of resistance could form if cultures from other countries were introduced,” he said.

Choi Jong-hoon, one of the few defectors to make it out of the country in the last year, told the BBC that “the harder the times, the harsher the regulations, laws, punishments become”.

“Psychologically, when your belly is full and you watch a South Korean film, it might be for leisure. But when there’s no food and it’s a struggle to live, people get disgruntled.”

Will it work?

Previous crackdowns only demonstrated how resourceful people have been in circulating and watching foreign films which are usually smuggled over the border from China.

For a number of years, dramas have been passed around on USB sticks which are now as “common as rocks”, according to Mr Choi. They’re easy to conceal and they’re also password encrypted.

“If you type in the wrong password three times in a row, the USB deletes its contents. You can even set it so this happens after one incorrect input of the password if the content is extra sensitive.

Leaving the country has become almost impossible with the current “shoot-to-kill” order at the tightly controlled border. And it is difficult not to expect Mr Kim’s new law to have more of a chilling effect.