[Feature] The secret item found in every North Korean home

North Korean home

Inside a North Korean home.

‘South Korean’ at home, ‘North Korean’ outside the home

Many North Korean families keep a secret item at home, whose discovery may lead to harsh punishment. Away from prying eyes and in the privacy of their homes, North Koreans enjoy using items forbidden by the state, according to North Koreans who have recently escaped from the country.

“In every North Korean home, there is at least one secret item” says Jung Young-chul* (age 34), who left Korea in 2012. He had a short-wave radio in the house and the family would secretly listen to South Korean broadcasts. To avoid being caught, they kept the radio hidden under a container for keeping rice.

They were not the only ones with a hidden radio. Jung explains, “Once, a friend described a story that I had heard the night before while listening to a South Korean broadcast. I brought it up with him one night in drink, and he confided that his family too had a radio. We laughed about it together.”

Kim Hee-young is from Chongjin, and she too left North Korea in 2012. She tells us, “We secretly traded South Korean TV shows in the markets and they always went very quickly. We ran out of stock on most days.”

She adds how outside the home, North Koreans dutifully obey the cultural restrictions enforced by the state. But inside the home, Hee-young says everything is different. “Where I lived, I would guess that almost every family owned a South Korean TV show. You can’t borrow what you want to watch if you don’t have something to trade it for, so everyone liked to keep at least one show at home.”

The secret items are not restricted to radios and DVDs. In areas where South Korean television programming can be picked up, families usually keep two television sets.

One set has pre-defined state channels that show only propaganda, for when authorities come to make an inspection. The other set is an illegal one that can receive South Korean programming. This is the one that is actually used by families. Hee-young offers another reason for keeping two television sets: “Some people make copies of South Korean shows and share them with friends, while others sell them in the black markets.”

Other North Korean families regularly listen to South Korean music and wear South Korean clothes at home, which is also forbidden by the state. Although a visitor to North Korea may see only North Koreans complying with regulations set by the regime, they enjoy breaking the rules in the safety of their homes. They behave like ‘North Koreans’ outside the home but become ‘South Koreans’ at home.

The North Korean state wants its people to know only loyalty to the Kim family. But under this coercive system, they are finding ways to transform the country from within. One North Korean refugee tells us, “Kim Jong-un is going to start a war? Who will pick up his gun to fight when Kim Tae-hee (a South Korean actress) is so beautiful?”