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North Korean Officials Reportedly Purged for Watching Soap Operas

South Korean media reported on the recent executions of several party officials, and also cited intelligence sources as saying Kim Jong-un had ankle surgery.
October 29, 2014, 1:57am
Photo via Reuters/KCNA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un recently executed 10 officials for watching soap operas, according to South Korea's state news agency.

_Yonhap News _— which is known for having an anti-North Korean bias — reported Tuesday that 10 officials from the Workers' Party of Korea were executed by firing squad on charges of corruption, watching South Korean soap operas, and other offenses. The report did not specify when the alleged executions took place.

Yonhap cited two South Korean lawmakers who attended a closed parliamentary audit of the National Intelligence Service, the main South Korean spy agency.

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.

Kim has purged hundreds of party officials since inheriting power from his father in 2011, including his own uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was executed on charges of treason.

While being caught watching South Korean soap operas does not seem on par with treason, the activity is actually "highly illegal," according to Matthew Reichel, founder of Pyongyang Project, a group that organizes study tours of North Korea for foreigners. Reichel recently spent a month traveling throughout North Korea, and said that despite the strict ban on foreign media, it was obvious that North Koreans had access to TV and movies from South Korea, China, and Hollywood.

"You can see by the way people are dressing and the access to information they have," Reichel told VICE News.

Though the number of North Koreans watching South Korean TV has reportedly been reduced because of recent crackdowns on cross-border smuggling, it is still possible for some — especially Party officials and other elites — to watch them in secret.

"There is no way they can stop the flow completely because it is Party officials who keep wanting to get hold of them," a source told the Guardian in June.

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But it seems that top leadership are not the only North Koreans with access to foreign media.

According to Reichel, the country's public markets are "thriving," and increased general economic activity has broadened access to foreign culture, including television and films, throughout a broad swath of North Korean society.

"Over the last 10 years, since the end of famine, it's easier and easier to get foreign information," said Reichel. "This is not political stuff, it's indirectly political — TV dramas and movies."

Public markets exist in a sort of legal gray area, but are generally tolerated by the regime for fear that shutting them down could cause an economic collapse and a repeat of the mid-'90s famine that caused thousands to starve to death. The markets are one of many places banned soap operas can be bought or rented under the counter.

Instead of buying DVDs, the Guardian reported that North Koreans also borrow soap operas for half the purchase price, roughly the same price as a kilo of rice in a public market. Those with homes close to the Chinese and South Korean borders are also able to use antennas to tune in secretly to foreign shows.

If reports are true that South Korean TV shows are behind the recent leadership disappearances, the impact of even "indirectly political" influence brought by foreign TV shows is evidently considered a threat by Kim and other senior leaders.

The Hermit Kingdom has reportedly expanded prison camps and increased public executions, with about 50 people executed this year by firing squad, according to Yonhap.

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In June, North Korea threatened to "mercilessly destroy" anyone associated with an unidentified Western movie that depicts an attempt to assassinate Kim. The action-comedy plot matches The Interview, starring Seth Rogan and James Franco, which tells the story of two celebrity journalists who secure an interview with Kim, prompting the Central Intelligence Agency to recruit them as assassins.

Kim, who attended school in Switzerland, is undoubtedly familiar with Western media, and reportedly spent "hours" watching Jackie Chan and other action movies when he was younger. His late father, Kim Jong-il, was also a noted cinephile with a personal collection of 20,000 films that included everything from Hollywood westerns to Japanese monster movies.

VICE News' Keegan Hamilton contributed reporting to this story.

Follow Olivia Crellin on Twitter: @OliviaCrellin