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North Korean Officials Reportedly Executed For Watching Soap Operas

At least 10 North Korean officials have reportedly been put to death recently for the crime of watching South Korean soap operas.

The latest public executions reportedly bring to at least 50 the number of people put to death by the hard-line regime for taking in the unauthorized day-time dramas from south of the DMZ, The Independent reports, quoting South Korean sources familiar with a National Intelligence Service (NIS) briefing.

The British newspaper says:

"The officials, who also faced charges of bribery and womanising, were thought to be close to Kim's executed uncle, Jang Song-thaek, Yonhap news agency reported.

"All television and media is under strict state control and access to the internet is limited but despite a harsh crackdown, banned foreign shows and films have been gaining popularity in recent years.

"Some are believed to be secretly streamed over the internet, while others are smuggled into the country on DVDs, video cassettes of memory sticks sold on the black market."

South Korean soap operas are wildly popular throughout Asia, where they are dubbed into local languages. The Wall Street Journal says the dramas "tend to feature outrageous plot lines" and are "characterized by the use of plot twists like birth secrets that connect lovers as blood siblings, or conveniently-timed car accidents that lead to temporary amnesia."

According to Vice News, the source of the information about the latest executions is two South Korean lawmakers who attended a closed parliamentary audit of the NIS.

Vice writes: "The briefing also reportedly revealed that Kim Jong-un underwent surgery at the hands of a foreign doctor to remove a cyst from his right ankle. Kim, who had been out of public view for six weeks, recently reappeared in North Korean propaganda walking with a cane. He was previously shown walking with a distinct limp."

As we reported earlier, Kim's long absence from the public spotlight spurred considerable speculation and rumor, including that he might have been overthrown.

Earlier this year, The Guardian reported that illicit South Korean soap operas have become something of an obsession in the North, especially among university students, with the most popular being a medical drama called Dr. Stranger.

"The popularity of Stranger among university students is not waning," [an anonymous] source said in a June story in the newspaper. "No matter how much [authorities] try to step up the crackdowns, there are already many people for whom watching South Korean dramas is part of life. In fact, it is Party officials, their children and students who are driving the popularity."

At the time of the story, the Guardian said that agents from Group 109, which controls "anti-socialist" activities in North Korea, "don't visit the homes of officials much," and that "if students do get caught watching this sort of thing, they can normally get away with a bribe."

If the latest reports prove true, that seems to have changed.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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