Report casts doubt on claim a North Korean was sentenced to death for smuggling 'Squid Game'

·3 min read
squid game
A still from Netflix's 2021 series "Squid Game."Netflix
  • Radio Free Asia reported that 'Squid Game' had been smuggled into North Korea.

  • The outlet said that a smuggler was facing death by firing squad as punishment.

  • The respected outlet NK News cited experts who said this was unlikely.

A North Korea-focused news outlet cast doubt on a viral report that said the Netflix drama "Squid Game" had been smuggled into the secretive state, leading to a death sentence.

NK News sought to debunk a recent story that said smuggled copies of the South Korean hit show were spreading in North Korea despite strict censorship of foreign media.

The publisher was Radio Free Asia (RFA), a US government-funded nonprofit news service focusing on Asian countries.

Citing unnamed sources in both cases, RFA also published an update Tuesday saying that a North Korean man was sentenced to death for smuggling after students were caught watching the hit drama.

The news was widely reported by other news outlets, including Insider.

But on Thursday NK News — a South Korea-based news service focused on reporting on the neighboring state — published an analysis in which border experts said it is "highly unlikely" the show could have made it into North Korea.

Insider contacted RFA for comment, which said that due to the holiday it could not immediately respond.

NK cited several experts in its debunk. This included an unnamed former North Korean official and defector who said it was "logically and conceptually impossible" for anyone to have brought in the show.

The defector said that border security was so tight during the pandemic he did not believe it could happen.

Ishimaro Jiro, founder of news site Asia Press Rimjingang, also told NK News that smuggling activity in some border cities had been hit hard by the state's tightened border controls.

He said there was a "less than 1% chance" the show came in on a SD card or a USB flash drive, as RFA's sources had said.

He also said that the timeframe for a death sentence was too short, given the recent release of the show. The man's arrest, trial and execution "probably wouldn't all happen in just two months in North Korea," he said. (RFA did not say that the execution had taken place yet.)

Other aspects of the timing did not make sense, NK News said. Reacting to RFA's report that the show came in by sea, NK News pointed to the prohibitively long time it takes goods to pass through ports, given current COVID restrictions.

An analysis by NK News of the port of Nampho found the average time taken for goods to be disinfected and pass through was two months — longer than "Squid Game" has been out.

Insider spoke to two North Korea specialists from the SOAS in the UK, who concurred that North Korea's security has become increasingly tight, but also said that some items can get through.

Dr James Hoare, a research associate at the university's Centre of Korean Studies, said that from around 2017, the North Korean government intensified efforts to block South Korean cultural influence.

In October this year, the North Korean government condemned the show, which is set in South Korea. A state propaganda website said the dystopian show revealed the "beastly" nature of South Korea, Reuters reported.

"It will be more difficult now, but not impossible as [shows] come in on USB sticks," said Prof. Hazel Smith, a research associate at the SOAS Centre of Korean Studies. She said it is "plausible" that "Squid Game" is being watched in North Korea, but not likely that it's widespread.

Ultimately, Hoare told Insider, it wasn't easy to say either way whether RFA's story held weight or whether it could be debunked.

Reporting on North Korea is notoriously difficult, as the secretive dictatorship prohibits a free press and lets few journalists into the country. Unlike in countries with a free media, unnamed sources are the norm, Hoare said.

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