North Korean movie smuggler tells all

[As Heard in North Korea]
Unification Media Group  |  2017-05-18 15:33

Daily NK and Unification Media Group will be interviewing victims of abuses and broadcasting excerpts of the recorded testimonies to listeners in North Korea as part of broader efforts to support the Center for Investigation & Documentation on Human Rights in North Korea (established in November 2016 pursuant to South Korea's North Korean Human Rights Act). It is hoped that this will raise awareness among the North Korean population that the outside world stands in solidarity against their oppression, as well as serve as a warning to the perpetrators that they will one day be held accountable.

Today we continue our conversation with Lee Hyon Woo, who spoke to us last week about working as a broker assisting defectors in the escape process. Mr. Lee also traveled back and forth between China and North Korea smuggling foreign videos between 2004 and 2006. Mr. Lee will offer his testimony about foreign information distribution and crackdown efforts by the authorities. 

The North Korean authorities thoroughly restrict the import of foreign videos into the country. Therefore, foreign videos can only be smuggled in. I understand that you did this work while you lived in North Korea, is that correct? 

Yes. When I went to China for the first time, I happened to watch some South Korean satellite television. At the time, popular dramas such as “The Immortal Yi Sun-shin” and “Only You” were being broadcast. They were a lot of fun to watch. I had seen one or two South Korean movies while in the North, but that was the first time I ever saw a drama. I knew that I could make some money if I brought them to North Korea to sell. 

My cousin was running a video rental store at the time. He asked me if I could bring him a North Korean flick called “Nameless Heroes.” I asked him whether I should bring other content as well, and he readily agreed. I loaded up blank CDs with 40-50 South Korean movies and 2 drama series and brought them with me to North Korea. To be honest, I was thinking more about just watching them myself rather than going into business at that point.  However, I got into a conversation with a border guard who asked me if I ever thought about selling the CDs/DVDs. And with that, he bought one for 500 North Korean won.  

Up until that point, CDs with South Korean content were widely available in Hyesan and Ryanggang Province, but they remained a rare find in my native North Hamgyong Province. I was helping to open up this new route. At the time, one CD was selling for 700-800 KPW in Hoeryong. But I was able to sell CDs at a lower price point, and this attracted customers. These customers weren’t just interested in watching the CDs themselves. They were buying them from me to sell to others. I realized that it would be better if I could cut out the middlemen and decided to try and sell wholesale. I bought 50 CDs of “Nameless Heroes” in Chongjin’s Sunam Market, brought them to China, and traded them for blank CDs that were loaded with South Korean movies. 

I chose romance movies and gangster movies that were popular at the time. Despite the authorities attempts to block the “Yellow Wind” [the influence of capitalist culture], it continues to blow strongly into the North. Action movies were also popular. I copied those types of movies onto the CDs and sold them for 500-600 KPW each. A CD loaded with a drama series sold for 400 KPW and one containing movies went for 600 KPW.    

What kind of quantities were you able to bring into North Korea? 

If I had a lot of CDs with me, they would really weigh me down. I was able to copy approximately 40 minutes- one hour of content onto one disc. Most series have 16-20 episodes so it required a lot of CDs. Movies are long, so I divided them into sections across two discs. Altogether, it added up to about 300 CDs. I put them all in my backpack and brought it with me across the border. 

How did you reproduce the movies? 

I didn’t bring blank CDs into China. Instead, my cousin’s friend - who operated a video rental store in China - used to give me blank CDs. When he couldn’t give them to me, I bought them for a low price. I just put the films into the computer and copied them. First, my cousin did it for me, but over time, I learned how to do it. We went to illegal download sites, downloaded the movies, and put them on the CDs. 

So then you went into North Korea and sold/rented out the films? 

Yes. If I sold it to the customer, they would turn around and sell it to someone else after they had watched it. We usually didn’t rent the movies. When we tried that, we found that many people simply never returned the CDs they had rented. Renting became more of a nuisance than it was worth, so I just sold them. 

How did you manage to evade crackdowns by the Ministry of State Security? 

There were some crackdowns, but it was a bit different back then. They would sometimes go around with a detector, trying to find people using cell phones or watching television in their homes. But people used to simply draw the curtains and continue to watch. Agents once approached my house when I was watching a South Korean movie with a friend. My friend tried to switch out the CD for a North Korean one, but the agent caught him and told him to freeze. In the end, we gave them a glass of alcohol and they left us alone. That wasn’t the only time. There were many occasions when I bribed the agents to look the other way with packs of cigarettes.  

I heard that you once watched South Korean media with the child of Chongjin City’s head of State Security. 

Yes, that’s true. My older sister married the son of the State Security Chief in Chongjin. One day, he came over and said, “Wanna watch a South Korean movie or something?” We kept the curtain closed and watched one together. The name of the movie was “Scent of a Man.” When I arrived in South Korea, I learned that the actor in the lead role was Kim Song Woo. It was such a cool film. The hero sacrificed his life in order to protect his younger sibling. Of course, while I was watching it, I got paranoid because of the stature of the person I was with. But I doubted that the father would do anything that would put his own son at risk, so I just watched it. My brother-in-law told me that the CD was repossessed property. I don’t know whether the resident it was taken from got sent to a political prison camp or not. In any case, it was really strange because the same people who are telling residents not to watch foreign media are themselves committing that very crime.        

What did you think after seeing South Korean films?

It made me want to see more. I always wanted to watch the same movie over again and watch other things as well. 

You said earlier that you copied movies in China and sold them in North Korea. Does this mean you went back to China every time you ran out of stock?

Yes. After I sold all of the CDs in North Korea, I went to China again. Of course, sometimes I went to China doing other types of work. But when I returned, I always had a backpack full of CDs to sell. 

Was it impossible to make copies of the films inside North Korea?

Yes. The computers back then were really low quality and I didn’t know how to go about it. 

What happens to people who get caught selling or watching foreign media? 

I have a painful memory related to the topic. My hometown is Chongjin City, which is located in North Hamgyong Province. My paternal uncle lived in Kilju, so I used to go there to play quite often. I met a girlfriend in Kilju, as well as many friends. Kilju already had access to foreign films then, but at one point, the supply line to Kilju stopped so I stepped in to fill the demand. I had friends in town who were involved in the same business. So we worked together and sold CDs in town. I was the wholesaler and they were the retailers. 

I had one friend who was stockpiling the CDs. Like other countries, the North Korean economy has fluctuations. My friend had neatly stacked hundreds of CDs and was waiting for the right sale at the right time. Unfortunately, this was also the time that Kim Jong Il ordered the authorities to execute anyone involved in distributing or watching South Korean media. The authorities were trying to make examples out of the offenders. I thought it was a good idea to stay out of sight, so I went to China to lay low. Suddenly, I got word from my friends. The friend who had stacked up his CDs was caught by the Ministry of State Security. 15 days had passed since he was apprehended, and it didn’t look like he was going to be released.     

My friends advised me to stay in China. But how could I do that? We were a group of seven friends. We often drank together. We cursed Kim Jong Il and talked about our struggles. So, it was hard to stay put when my friend was in trouble. We all had the urge to protect each other. I decided to go back into North Korea. I tried to contact my friend’s parents indirectly, but they were under house arrest and no one was allowed to meet with them. 

After about ten days of this, we got a notification. We were all told to gather at the market. I had an intuition that a public execution would be conducted. Since the authorities hadn’t conducted an investigation or contacted anyone about my friend’s case, I thought it unlikely that he was sent to a political prison camp or a reeducation center. All he had done was stack up a few hundred CDs. I hardly thought that deserved an execution. We weren’t even able to gather up money and bribe him out of there. That’s because the execution order had come down from Kim Jong Il.  

I remember the day of my friend’s execution quite clearly. It was July 1, 2005. They conducted a People’s Court on the riverbank of a market in Kilju. There were three people being tried, including my friend. Two of the accused were executed on the spot. But execution isn’t a short process in North Korea. The authorities torture the accused and force them to admit to their wrongdoings first, pretending as if they will offer clemency in exchange for a confession. Then, after some time, they say, “We execute you in the name of the people,” and just shoot them. A child of one of those executed fainted when they saw their parent die. 

Our friend was an only child, and when we saw him die, we starting bawling, but we couldn’t make a sound. When I made eye contact with my friend before it happened, he smiled at me dimly. Even today, when I remember that, my hair stands on end. I was too young at the time to really comprehend death. I just had to bite my lip, cover my eyes, and witness his execution. He was only 70 meters away from me. I was 25 years old then.  

Why do you think that residents continue to watch foreign media even after witnessing horrible punishments? 

I think it’s because it gives people the opportunity to learn something new. It was fascinating to see characters roam around freely, and to learn about new places like South Korea. In North Korea, the films are designed to foster loyalty for the leadership, but South Korean movies cover topics like true love. Also, watching gangster flicks teaches us just how important it is to obey the law. Other films show characters standing up to unreasonable people and governments. These films show us a new world. That is why people young and old are willing to risk their lives to view these films. 

Why do you think the authorities punish people who watch foreign content so severely? Merely watching these things doesn’t entail actually interacting with the international community. 

The authorities need to maintain control over all elements of society to keep the dictatorship in power. The thing that the authorities are most afraid of is the yellow wind. There are even songs advising the residents not to get swept up in it. Even if the country reforms and opens up, the people will not get any additional leverage. 

The North Korean regime views foreign USBs, CDs, and radio broadcasts as mortal threats of the highest danger. If the regime has to murder a million residents to prevent foreign information from spreading, they will do so. Despite this, the distribution of South Korean content in the North is already provoking social changes. North Korea will be democratized. People are still waiting for a pivot point, but at some point the cultural influence is going to reach a critical mass and democratization will come about.   

Freedom of expression also includes freedom of access to information. The North Korean authorities have placed an absolute ban on foreign media. All people have an inherent right to access outside information and freely express themselves. 

*Edited by Lee Farrand

 
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