In totalitarian North Korea, it’s not just the fictional characters competing in “Squid Game” who are in mortal danger.
An unnamed smuggler who distributed videos of the dystopian South Korean-made megahit series has been sentenced to death by firing squad by the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, according to reports this week by Radio Free Asia.
Citing what it said were sources inside North Korea, the U.S.-funded RFA reported that a North Korean student who purchased a banned USB flash drive of the series and shared it with friends now faces a life sentence, and others caught watching the show face lengthy sentences at hard labor.
The harsh crackdown has an ironic element, as the grim premise of “Squid Game” itself is that down-on-their-luck contestants compete in a shadowy competition for a life-changing cash prize, while those who are eliminated along the way are killed. “The Squid Game” has been widely noted in South Korean and Western venues, and often praised, as a harshly anti-capitalist film.
Hwang Dong-hyuk, the show’s creator, said earlier this month that “in the 21st century, I thought that maybe we were seeing the limits of capitalism.”
Indeed, the North Koreans have noted this themselves. Its propaganda site Arirang Meari claimed last month that the show is “exposing the reality of South Korean society, where weak meat and corruption has been on the rise and scoundrels are commonplace.”
The Pyongyang regime has stepped up efforts to keep out South Korean and other foreign media content, recently passing a law calling for the death penalty for selling or watching “reactionary thought and culture” from capitalist countries, in particular the U.S. and South Korea.
The “Squid Game” arrests were the first time the new law had been invoked, according to RFA.
South Korea’s growing cultural clout — including the recent Oscar-winning movie “Parasite,” the global fan base for K-pop and now “Squid Game” — has posed a particular problem for Mr. Kim’s propagandists, who have long dismissed the South Korean system as inferior and unequal.
After a slight cultural thaw coinciding with then-President Trump’s diplomatic outreach in 2018 and 2019, North Korea has reverted to a heavy censorship campaign against outside media and culture as relations with both Seoul and Washington have cooled.
Mr. Kim earlier this year denounced K-pop as a “vicious cancer” that could undermine his regime’s philosophy of extreme self-reliance if not checked.
The runaway success of “Squid Game” poses yet another challenge, as the South Korean series is the top-ranked show in nearly 100 countries around the globe.
The smuggled USB flash drives that led to the recent arrests may have come from one of the dozens of streaming sites in China running pirated versions of the show.
China itself is struggling to control the deal with the loss of cultural control online that its Communist leaders fear is infecting the nation’s youth.
The Cyberspace Administration of China announced Tuesday new regulations to regulate the presence of Chinese and foreign celebrities and their fan bases online after accusing them of promoting “extravagant pleasure.”
Celebrities can no longer flaunt their wealth online, and web personalities and their fans must “follow public order and good customs, adhere to correct public opinion orientation and value orientation, promote socialist core values, and maintain a healthy style and taste,” the CAC said in a statement.
For its part, North Korea is condemning “Squid Game” and citing its popularity as another instance of how the U.S. exploits its South Korean ally. A recent Pyongyang commentary noted complaints in South Korea itself that U.S. streaming site Netflix was claiming the lion’s share of the show’s profits at the expense of its Korean creators.
“Numerous South Korean works, including films and TV series, are being shown on Netflix and earning billions of dollars, but the South Korean film production companies only receive about 10% of their production cost,” Meari said in a statement late last month.
“They are only filling the stomachs of American companies,” the statement said.
— Victor Morton of The Washington Times contributed to this report