The man allegedly smuggled copies of the Korean-language show on USB drives from China into North Korea, where seven high-school students were caught watching the footage, sources told Radio Free Asia.
A student who bought one of the flash drives received a life sentence, while six others who watched the footage have been sentenced to five years of hard labor. Teachers and administrators at the school were fired or face forced labor in remote mines, sources told the outlet.
Radio Free Asia reported last week that the hit series had made its way in the hermit kingdom despite efforts by North Korean authorities to keep it out of the country, where foreign media is banned.
The dystopian, graphic and violent show about 456 debt-ridden South Koreans playing a series of life-or-death children’s games for a chance to win $38 million resonates with North Koreans, especially the rich residents of Pyongyang, sources told RFA.
“ ‘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, northeast of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA. “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.”
The plot of the show “parallels” the reality for some in North Korea, where those who earn too much money “could be executed” at any time, 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,” the man continued. “They secretly watch the show under their blankets at night on their portable media players.”
A law enforcement source in North Hamgyong Province — which shares a border with China — told RFA Monday a high school student watched “Squid Game” in a classroom with one of his friends.
“The friend told several other students, who became interested, and they shared the flash drive with them,” the source said. “They were caught by the censors in 109 Sangmu, who had received a tipoff.”
The government’s strike force against outside media — Surveillance Bureau Group 109 — then arrested the seven students in what’s believed to be the first time North Korea is applying the new law in a case involving minors, RFA reported.
Authorities then started scouring nearby markets for other memory storage devices and foreign media after the students were caught, one North Hamgyong source said.
“The residents are all trembling in fear because they will be mercilessly punished for buying or selling memory storage devices, no matter how small,” a second source told RFA. “But regardless of how strict the government’s crackdown seems to be, rumors are circulating that among the seven arrested students, one with rich parents was able to avoid punishment because they bribed the authorities with $3,000.”
North Korea passed a law last year on the “Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture,” which carries a maximum penalty of death for watching, possession or distribution of media from capitalist countries like South Korea and the U.S., RFA reported.
“Law enforcement is not playing around with the new law, and they are fiercely trying to root out every instance of capitalist culture,” a second source told RFA. “But times are tough due to the pandemic, so even the police are struggling to make ends meet. Putting a few bucks in their pocket will make them go away if you get caught watching South Korean media.”