What I learned watching North Korean TV

By James Cook on September 30th, 2013

Every evening in North Korea, families gather in front of their television sets to watch the carefully-planned mix of television available on Korean Central Television, the only official source of television news in North Korea. Thanks to a South Korean broadcasting company, we’re able to watch the same television programmes live on the internet. I watched only North Korean television for a week to find out what it’s like.

Television starts at around 16.30 in North Korea with the national anthem, the North Korean flag and patriotic songs honouring Kim Jong-un. After the formalities, the news begins.

Newsreaders speak in three different styles. Most often they shout the news triumphantly, proudly exclaiming that Kim Jong-un has visited a stadium and declared that it should be repaired. Sometimes they will talk slowly and more carefully, explaining that the latest crop harvest is so high because of a certain kind of technological advancement. And occasionally they will deliver the news angrily. This is reserved for stories about the Western world.

North Korean newsreaders are required to appear the same as their colleagues and predecessors. Male newsreaders wear a suit, either grey, black or blue. Female newsreaders wear either green or pink. All newsreaders sport the same gravity-defying short haircuts.

In 2004, Korean Central Television ran a five-part hidden camera series where people with long hair were publicly shamed.

In 2004, Korean Central Television ran a five-part hidden camera series titled ‘Let’s trim our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle’ where people with long hair were publicly shamed.

After the news and weather finishes, it’s usually time for North Korean comedy. It’s So Funny has been running on North Korean television since the 1970s, making it one of the world’s longest-running television comedy shows. The show features men and women, dressed in military uniforms, speaking to each other, telling jokes, singing and performing slapstick comedy in front of an audience.

The comedy shows became one of my favourite programmes on North Korean TV. The theatrical performance of the news was far more pompous than the actors and actresses miming playing guitars and falling over in the comedy shows. For most people, the only side of North Korea we see is its military commanders, the lines of applauding citizens, the cult of personality.

But beneath that, North Korean families love nothing more than some slapstick comedy right in the middle of the military parade television programme.

Also, Koreans love music. I learned this very quickly watching KCTV. You might think that Korean music would be old-fashioned and boring. And sure, some of it is, but a good deal of the Korean music I heard was actually pretty catchy. After I found myself singing along to the song embedded below, I looked up the lyrics. “Soldiers marching in the street, open windows, streets engraved with shiny gold ..” It wasn’t your average pop song.

Like everything else in North Korea, there is a dark side to the music videos broadcast on the official news channel. When children show musical aptitude, they are removed from their families and sent to a large school in Pyongyang created specially for musicians. If a band’s popularity wavers then it is broken up and members reallocated into new ensembles.

A recent scandal in North Korea resulted in the execution of twelve prominent musicians from the Unhasu Orchestra. This band was popular for a series of hits in North Korea, including Excellent Horse-Like Lady, I Love Pyongyang and We are Troops of the Party. Members were found to have sold tapes of them performing sex acts, along with possessing bibles.

Three days after their arrest, they were machine-gunned to death in front of their families and members of other popular bands. The onlookers were then sent to one of North Korea’s hellish labour camps. Among the dead was Hyon Song-wol, a woman rumoured to be a former girlfriend of Kim Jong-un. The North Korean leader’s wife Ri Sol-ju is a former member of the Unhasu Orchestra.

Every night, the sports scores and results are displayed for twenty minutes. Patriotic music plays in the background as the announcer reads out the scores with pride.
Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 14.29.18

North Koreans are treated to one film a day. Of the five I saw on KCTV, none differed from the following plot: hard-working North Korean man meets hard-working North Korean woman, their hard-working North Korean friends are shown doing hard work, sweeping panorama shots of the North Korean countryside are shown as patriotic music plays and eventually the two main characters sit on a hillside and thank the eternal President for finding each other.

A still image from a North Korean romance film. Note the pins on the actors' shirts that feature an image of Kim Il-sung.

A still image from a North Korean romance film. Note the pins on the actors’ shirts that feature an image of Kim Il-sung.

While North Korean cinema doesn’t exactly make for gripping viewing, it’s a charming mix of 1970s Hollywood romance and North Korean propaganda that can suck you in if you watch a lot of it. All actors are seen wearing pins with an image of Kim Il-sung, as all North Koreans are required to do.

As the week progressed, I found the schedule of North Korean television actually worked very well. Apart from the nightly movie, programmes run for a maximum of half an hour. All of the day’s television packed into one evening meant that no one subject lasted too long.

It is estimated that 55 of every 1,000 North Koreans have access to televisions. And if they are wealthy enough to own one, it is only able to play the four North Korean television stations (three if you’re outside of the capital Pyongyang). Television purchases must be authorised by the police and spot checks are carried out to ensure that they have not been modified to receive foreign transmissions.

It would have been easy for me to simply close the stream of North Korean television and watch something else. But, in North Korea, watching something other than the government-approved television programming will likely result in you and your family being sent to a labour camp.

It is currently unclear exactly where the online livestream of North Korean television originates from. The most widely-touted source is Unification Broadcasting. The IP address of the livestream matches a server in Seoul, South Korea, belonging to the company. With the country’s National Security Law, it is illegal for South Korean citizens to share or rebroadcast any form of North Korean propaganda.

South Korea has used signal jamming to attempt to block North Korean television channels broadcasting south of the border between the two countries.

After a week of watching the livestream of Korean Central Television, I’ve grown to almost enjoy the tightly regulated mix of music videos, zealous newsreaders, slapstick comedy and patriotic flags. The romance movies and comedy routines served to bring personality to a country often depicted as uniform and humourless. Of course, everything relayed on North Korean television is propaganda, a front for a nation filled with suffering and labour camps. I have to stop myself singing along to catchy patriotic North Korean songs now that I know their meaning, and the fate of the musicians who created them.

You can view the livestream of North Korean television here. The link will download an .asf file that can be opened in VLC Player as a stream.