Unlike most countries, North Korea is pretty much shut off from the world. It is treated as a pariah on the international stage and for good reason. It has an extremely authoritarian government, which is headed up by Kim Jong-un. He is the son of Kim Jong-il, and the grandson of Kim II-sung who founded the state, which is officially called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It is funny when countries that have 'Democratic' in their official names are often not anything of the kind.
Recently, North Korea has been in the headlines after it was alleged that copies of Squid Game - the smash hit series that launched on Netflix in September - had been smuggled into North Korea on USB drives and SD cards. One of these smugglers, according to the report, had been caught and been sentenced to death by firing squad. It's worth noting that Squid Game contains a North Korean defector, Kang Sae-byeok, as a main character, which makes the show particularly contentious for the Democratic People's Republic.
Although North Korea shares a land border with South Korea, this is extremely tightly guarded and its northern neighbour generally keeps lots of security for its borders and ports. Meanwhile, the dissemination of media from outside the country has always been closely monitored and those who possess such things like movies, TV shows, or music from outside the country have to be very wary, unless they are a part of the country's tiny elite. This doesn't mean all outside media is banned in the country. In the national library in the country's capital, Pyongyang, visitors can watch VHS tapes of Russian concerts and even listen to Beatles songs. But here, only a very small number of North Korean citizens can gain access to this library and such material. The country runs an incredibly tight propaganda machine and likes to control many aspects of its citizens lives.
I have visited the country as a freelance journalist, and I've written reports on North Korea for international media, spoken with experts, and read the necessary literature. But even then, I would not claim very high expertise on the country. Even in 2021, it remains extremely difficult to verify all the rumours and reports that come out from North Korea. This includes the Radio Free Asia report about the Squid Game smuggler.
The report itself cites unnamed sources. This isn't uncommon practice when reporting on North Korea, as journalists often want to protect their sources since anyone found to be leaking information to Western media (RFA is a US-funded outlet) can be punished severely. Now, an outlet dedicated to reporting on North Korea has cast some doubt on the veracity of RFA's story.
A former elite North Korean official, also unnamed, told NK News that it is "logically and conceptually impossible” that Squid Game has made it into the country. This official, who defected to South Korea "recently", added that border security has been extremely strict to keep out Covid-19.
NK News went on to say that the secretive state has blocked the transit of most goods and people across its border since early 2020 due to the pandemic. Analysing the information available, NK News summarises that it is "highly unlikely that Squid Game... has had time to reach North Korean soil and disseminate there," emphasising that the show only debuted on September 17.
It should be noted that few people in North Korea even have the computers or technology capable of running SD cards and USBs, and many of its citizens still live in relative poverty. Whatever the truth of the matter, this should be a lesson that in this day and age (and perhaps especially in this day and age) we should be vigilant about the news reports we read and accept that we can't always access all of the information at once.
Gaming takes us to some wonderful places, but some are more wonderful than others.