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South Korean Pop Culture Reaches Into North Korea

The popularity of South Korean movies and dramas has spread throughout Asia - including North Korea, which strictly bans watching foreign television programs. Jason Strother in Seoul introduces us to a North Korean refugee who says South Korean dramas inspired her to flee to the South.

Byun Nan-hee is a North Korean refugee who has lived in Seoul since 2002. In the North, she says, television programs did only one thing: glorify the government and its leaders.

Byun says that on North Korean television, there are only programs about Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung. Other dramas are about farmers or miners, nothing about ordinary people and relationships.

Twenty-eight-year-old Byun says the government uses the media to brainwash people by painting a picture that the outside world is much poorer than they are.

But her indoctrination began to unravel in 1997, when she and her two brothers crossed the border into China, in search of food and medicine.

There, for the first time, she watched South Korean television.

Byun could not believe what she saw.

She says that when she saw the South Korean soap operas, she could see how the people there live and that they have big houses. Then, she says, she knew that things were much better there.

Byun says she had never intended to go to South Korea. But after seeing the TV programs, she changed her mind.

With the help of a South Korean human rights group, she was smuggled through China to Thailand, and finally to South Korea.

North Koreans are not only exposed to South Korean media while in China, but also in their hometowns.

North Korean TV sets and radios are fixed to receive only government channels. But smuggled in videotapes and DVDs are hot commodities on the black market.

Park Sang Hak fled the North and now is president of the Seoul advocacy group, NK Gulag. He estimates that one out of every 100 North Koreans has seen South Korean television.

He was among them.

He recalls watching a South Korean drama that was about the fight against the former military dictatorship in Seoul. He was shocked to see that people could openly criticize the government. He thought that if North Koreans did that, they would be killed.

But Park says even watching those television shows could get a person branded as an enemy of the state.

He says the National Security Agency is on the look out for people watching or listening to South Korean media. If they are caught, they will be labeled a political dissident and sent to a prison camp.

Brian Myers is a North Korea expert at the South's Dongseo University. He says the Pyongyang authorities are eager to stamp out foreign influences because they undermine its claims that North Koreans live in a socialist paradise.

"Since the information blockade began crumbling in the mid-1990s, the regime has abandoned that claim and it has taken to acknowledging that the South Korean people are materially better off than North Korean people, but they are morally compromised and they are ethnically compromised by allowing themselves to be ruled by foreigners, the Americans," Myers said.

Myers says the North's propaganda states that all South Koreans secretly yearn to be unified under the rule of Kim Jong Il. But, he says, South Korean movies and TV shows would disprove this notion.

"I think it's a matter of time before the North Koreans realize by watching South Korean culture that North Korea is simply not important to the South Korean people. That the average South Korean person does not think of North Korea from the one day to the next," Myers said. "And I think once that realization spreads among the North Korean population, the North Korean regime will have a serious problem"

But South Korean dramas might be getting harder to find in North Korea.

Human rights groups say China has increased its security along the border, preventing information from the outside world from entering North Korea, as well as keeping its people from escaping.