Censorship: Background and Ideology

In the case of the DPRK, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, censorship is found predominately in the form of a media monopoly that is absolutely critical to maintain obedience. It is the key factor to maintain a three-tiered approach to control at the ideological, physical, and institutional level.1 Central to this structure is the ideological edifice known as Juche Sasang, the guiding theme of North Korean governance. Juche Sasang is described as “self-reliance, manifested more specifically as, independence in the political, economic, and military spheres, and supports the idea of a systematic social hierarchy.”2 It is through this ideology that the government of the DPRK maintains power of its institutions and citizens and justifies complete isolation from other nations though bans on communication, trade, and media. After World War II and the subsequent separation of North and South Korea, Kim Il-Sung, the “Parent Leader” of North Korea and the first of the Kim regime found himself in the delicate position of protecting his autocracy from the draw of China’s budding communist cultural revolution of 1966 and lingering attachment to South Korea amongst the people. He did so by enforcing the idea that North Korea was the true center of Korean-ness, purer and more superior not only to South Korea, but to all other nations.

In order to protect this self-proclaimed superiority he declared the importance of complete independence and self-reliance (Juche Sasang) to prevent defacing pure Korean ideals and commerce with the influence of other, lesser countries.3 It also enforces that officials are the sole providers of information to the populous, both in regards to internal affairs and reports of the outside world. Since the only legal sources of information are rigorously screened and often written by official national reporters nearly any statement can be published to inflate the North Korean image with little likelihood that it will be refuted, causing a cult-like worship of their leader and intense loyalty to their country in many cases until outside media became more available.

According to annual reports by Freedom House and Reporters without Borders, North Korea is frequently ranked as one of the top 5 countries with the least free media in the world, receiving a 97 out of 100 with 100 being the absolute least free.4 The government owns all North Korean news outlets of which all the reporters are party members under strict scrutiny to uphold government approved journalistic standards.5 Only the nation’s elite and high-ranking officials have approval to use cellphones or the internet and the only other approved sources of media are televisions and radios that are limited to pre-programmed government stations broadcasting nothing but propaganda.6 In an attempt to make foreign broadcasts less accessible all radio receivers sold within the DPRK as of the 1960’s are only capable of toggling between a number of set stations rather than being free-tuning, blocking the unsupervised stations in between government frequencies.7 Televisions come with similar restrictions, and both radio and television sets are mandated by police inspection a few times a year to inspect tamper seals and ensure that they have not been doctored to circumvent government constraints on transmissions.8

Restrictions on educational and cultural works like television, music, journalism, and movies are all focused on ensuring that such works are only available if they present North Korea and especially the Kim family in the best possible light at whatever cost necessary. As such, ensuring that every news story is reported to the benefit of the Kim reputation takes president over journalistic accuracy every time. If any piece of media is found to be critical of North Korea or its leadership in any way it is banned outright, and anyone found in possession of such media can face harsh consequences, and music is no exception. Music as well as musical instruments relating to aristocratic lifestyles from before the split of North and South were abandoned in favor of promoting the working class of the communist society.9 In order to be performed live or played on television and radio, songs must first contain satisfactory content like praise of the party leaders and communist ideals to be cleared for public consumption. Government radio and television broadcasts tend to rely heavily on content like classical music for this reason, but “revolutionary operas” about the triumphs of North Korea and its leaders as well as propaganda-filled pop about serving the nation are also common musical selections. Many of them are even credited (though likely false) as being written personally by members of the Kim family like the song featured below, which was allegedly written by Kim Jong-Il and performed in 2012 in his honor for Kim Jong Un.

Consequences for breaking these regulations can be severe. As of recent years North Korean citizens have obeyed censorship guidelines more loosely and smuggling and piracy of contraband media has become more common, but not without considerable risk. Charges for possessing or circulating contraband music through contraband devices like modified radios, mp3 players, tapes, or usb drive can range from three months of so-called “re-education” to five years of torture and unpaid labor in prison camps or even execution.10 It is only through the testimony of individual defectees that the outside world has any knowledge of the fate that awaits those who are charged of such offences as the realm of punishment in North Korea remains one of the most heavily guarded aspects of the nation. One such example is a 2008 CNN interview with the former North Korean singer Ji Hae Nam who faced five months of interrogation before being imprisoned, starved, and tortured for three years, suffering countless instances of physical and sexual abuse and attempting to take her own life because her neighbors reported her teaching four friends a South Korean pop song in her own home. Her four friends were also charged with eight-month sentences in gulags. After serving her sentence she made her first attempt to escape to China where she was caught by a trafficker and kept as a sex slave for seven months before she was able to escape only to be captured by authorities and sent back to North Korea for a second sentence in a detention center. Eventually she escaped across the Vietnam border and sought asylum in South Korea where she chose to risk her safety by identifying herself in order to give interviews about the oppression North Koreans face and give her testimony to the United States Congress.11

It is often the threat of such punishment that keeps the people of North Korea too afraid to openly rebel against their leadership. By censoring of all media within the country the government seeks to ensure that the public remains ignorant about the outside world and loyal to the DPRK knowing that failure to do such may have horrifying consequences. This structure gives form to the industry of music that remains as a result of the severe censorship, making musical propaganda the public’s only legal option. With this in mind, the next sections will investigate the effect this musical atmosphere has on life in North Korea, from life as a musician, to the role of music in the daily environment, to the first glimpses of musical freedom and life on the outside and the powerful ripple effects it has caused within the nation.


Read More: Section 2

1 Kretchum, Nat, and Jane Kim. “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment.” Washington, DC: InterMedia. 2012. Accessed April 15, 2015. 75.

2 Betts, Angela Michelle and Joseph P Smaldone, “North Korea: On The Path To Revolution?” (PhD diss., Georgetown University, 2010). 13.

3 Betts and Smaldone, “North Korea: On The Path To Revolution?” 43.

4 Kretchum and Kim, “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment.” 6.

5 Sedaghat, Nouran. “North Korea Exposed: Censorship in the World’s Most Secretive State.” Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. March 17, 2014. Accessed May 1, 2015.

6 Betts and Smaldone, “North Korea: On The Path To Revolution?” 50.

7 Lankov, A. N. North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea. (North Carolina: McFarland &, 2007), 93.

8 “North Korea’s Tightly Controlled Media.” BBC, December 19, 2011, Asia-Pacific sec. Accessed April 10, 2015.

9 Korpe, Marie. Shoot the Singer!: Music Censorship Today. London: Zed Books, 2004. 31.

10 Kretchum and Kim, “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment.” 71.

11 “North Korea: Three Years in Prison for Simply Singing a Wrong Song.” Freemuse. September 6, 2008. Accessed April 20, 2015.