How I Smuggled ‘Porn’ Out of North Korea

On Wednesday, the occasionally reliable South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported that a dozen performers, including Kim Jong Un’s ex-girlfriend, were executed for making sex tapes, some of which "have apparently gone on sale in China," violating North Korean laws against pornography. The story has been picked up by Fox News and the Telegraph, among others, though it’s impossible to ...

578467_img_034912.jpg
578467_img_034912.jpg

On Wednesday, the occasionally reliable South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported that a dozen performers, including Kim Jong Un's ex-girlfriend, were executed for making sex tapes, some of which "have apparently gone on sale in China," violating North Korean laws against pornography. The story has been picked up by Fox News and the Telegraph, among others, though it's impossible to judge its veracity. Still, this seems as good a time as any to tell the story of how I smuggled pornography out of Pyongyang.

On a trip to North Korea in September 2011, my tour group stopped in the city of Kaesong near the South Korean border. One of the few North Korean cities open to U.S. tourists, Kaesong is perched near the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily fortified, 160 mile-long border separating the two Koreas. Tourism in North Korea involves minders shuttling you between Kim family monuments, punctuated by pre-arranged restaurant meals and, occasionally, opportunities to shop. Right around the time we were allowed to photograph a rock memorializing Kim Il Sung's last known calligraphy, our guides took us to a little stand. And in one of the few places selling goods to foreigners, amid bitter ginseng candies and wooden backscratchers and berry liquors, I purchased a silkscreen that, to my untrained eye, looked a lot like topless women bathing by a lake.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, tells me the silkscreen, pictured above, is a reproduction of a well-known painting by 18th century Korean artist Sin Yun Bok, called "A Scenery on Dano Day." For North Koreans, "this will have a soft porno appeal," he says.

On Wednesday, the occasionally reliable South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported that a dozen performers, including Kim Jong Un’s ex-girlfriend, were executed for making sex tapes, some of which "have apparently gone on sale in China," violating North Korean laws against pornography. The story has been picked up by Fox News and the Telegraph, among others, though it’s impossible to judge its veracity. Still, this seems as good a time as any to tell the story of how I smuggled pornography out of Pyongyang.

On a trip to North Korea in September 2011, my tour group stopped in the city of Kaesong near the South Korean border. One of the few North Korean cities open to U.S. tourists, Kaesong is perched near the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily fortified, 160 mile-long border separating the two Koreas. Tourism in North Korea involves minders shuttling you between Kim family monuments, punctuated by pre-arranged restaurant meals and, occasionally, opportunities to shop. Right around the time we were allowed to photograph a rock memorializing Kim Il Sung’s last known calligraphy, our guides took us to a little stand. And in one of the few places selling goods to foreigners, amid bitter ginseng candies and wooden backscratchers and berry liquors, I purchased a silkscreen that, to my untrained eye, looked a lot like topless women bathing by a lake.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, tells me the silkscreen, pictured above, is a reproduction of a well-known painting by 18th century Korean artist Sin Yun Bok, called "A Scenery on Dano Day." For North Koreans, "this will have a soft porno appeal," he says.

This probably wouldn’t be remarkable anywhere else, but North Korea is one of the world’s most conservative countries. It was shocking when Kim Jong Un appeared on television in July 2012 with (unlicensed) Disney characters, but more because the video also included women in strapless dresses — bare shoulders in public are practically unheard of in Pyongyang, outside of a gymnastics outfit. In The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, defector Chol-hwan Kang gushes about his first experience with erotic film in South Korea. "One night seemed too short a time to make up for a lifetime of North Korean prudishness," he wrote in his 2000 memoir. "We had entered a fairyland. We couldn’t believe our eyes."

Obviously, porn exists in North Korea. Former CIA official Henry Crumpton, in his 2012 book The Art of Intelligencewrote "I’ve never met a North Korean diplomat who did not want porn, either for personal use or resale." And in 2009, South Korean media released a video, allegedly for internal North Korean use, featuring scantily clad women dancing to pop tunes.

As I was leaving the country, a border guard at the Pyongyang Airport, perhaps suspecting I was a journalist, gruffly and methodically searched through my bag. He unpacked my clothes, ruffled through my books, and peered into my Dopp kit. When he came across the red bag housing my silkscreen, I grew nervous and smiled awkwardly. He unfolded it and stared at the image. If memory serves, I was the last one of my tour group to go through security, and my mind briefly raced through the consequences of spreading illicit materials in the world’s most repressive country. He looked up at me, only to flash a delighted grin, gently return the silkscreen to its bag, and wave me through.     

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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