North Koreans hooked on 'Squid Game' distribute show via thumb drives

North Koreans really living life in peril watching fictional South Koreans living life in peril.

Belmont Lay | November 18, 2021, 04:22 PM

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Illegal copies of Squid Game are spreading in North Korea and locals are hooked on watching it, Radio Free Asia reported on Nov. 16.

This is despite North Korea's crackdown on foreign media.

Squid Game made its debut on Netflix in mid-September 2021.

The show's premise is on 456 adults with mounting debt playing children's games to win 45.6 billion won (about S$52.4 million), with those who don't win getting killed after each round.

Distributed via thumb drives

According to RFA, the series is passed around the population via more traditional methods with streaming services non-existent in the hermit kingdom.

"Squid Game has been able to enter the country on memory storage devices such as USB flash drives and SD cards, which are smuggled in by ship, and then make their way inland," a resident of Pyongsong, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA.

The source said young people in North Korean capital Pyongyang "secretly watch the show under their blankets at night on their portable media players".

Helping to propel the series' popularity is the inclusion of one character, Kang Sae-Byeok (Player 067), portrayed by actress Jung Ho-Yeon.

She is of interest to North Korean audiences as Kang is a North Korean defector who took part in the games to win the money for her younger brother and to help her mother escape as well.

"One of the characters is a North Korean escapee and they can relate to her," the source said.

Show popular with wealthier North Koreans

While the show resonated with many middle class South Koreans who feel that they are mired in crippling debt as well, Squid Game resonates with rich people of Pyongyang.

The unnamed source, who watched the show at his money-changer brother’s house in Pyongyang, said: “They say that the content is similar to the lives of Pyongyang officials who fight in the foreign currency market as if it is a fight for life and death.”

“They think the show’s plot kind of parallels their own reality, where they know they could be executed at any time if the government decides to make an example out of them for making too much money, but they all continue to make as much money as possible,” the source said.

“It not only resonates with the rich people, but also with Pyongyang’s youth, because they are drawn to the unusually violent scenes."

Porous borders with China

RFA reported that the show entered North Korea via porous borders with China.

This is despite heightened measures to make it more difficult to make it through via the land crossings, with land mines planted, more guards stationed at outposts, and a 1km kill zone along the border declared, all in the name of shutting out Covid-19.

Yet, smugglers persist.

And this has resulted in those involved in the illegal trafficking of the show to also enjoy Squid Game, due to the morbid fascination with fictional characters who also live their lives in peril.

A resident of North Pyongan province, bordering China, told RFA that the show has caught on with the smugglers who move goods in from China at great risk.

“Smugglers in particular are immersed in the show because they feel as though they are in a similar situation. They risk their lives to smuggle things in from China despite enhanced border security during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The North Korean government has publicly executed smugglers and their accomplices during the pandemic.

Deadly just to watch show

Adding to the danger is the fact that watching Squid Game is itself a crime punishable with death.

The North Korean government passed a new law in 2020 on the “Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture”.

The maximum penalty is death for watching, keeping, or distributing capitalist media, especially from South Korea and the U.S.

But enforcement is also lax at times, as the North Korean police are suffering along with the population.

The second source claimed that police there are amenable to bribes and can be paid off to not take action against those who consume the show.

RFA reported in May 2020 that authorities were checking students’ text messages for South Korean spellings and slang.

In June 2020, authorities began punishing people caught using a specific sarcastic phrase that appeared in a South Korean drama because it was seen as disrespectful to the country’s leader Kim Jong Un.

In February 2021, RFA reported that police were cracking down on vehicle window tinting, which North Koreans were using to hide their surreptitious viewing of South Korean videos, labelling the practice as part of the “yellow wind of capitalism.”

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