Commentary: Why K-pop threatens North Korean Kim Jong Un


SEOUL: In recent months, North Korea has opposed the domestic penetration of South Korean cultural products, especially South Korean popular music (K-pop).

The North has already done it. In the past, the regime has targeted other “decadent” behaviors, including long hair on men, blue jeans, foreign movies, and so on.

This time, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called K-pop “vicious cancer.” It introduced laws last December that crack down on viewing or possession of South Korean pop movies, dramas and videos, with a sentence of up to 15 years in a labor camp. Smuggling this content across the border could result in the death penalty.

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These are often the cause of puzzled media coverage elsewhere in the world. What possible threat could dyed hair or teary ballads pose to a brutal autocracy?

Wags might even agree with Kim that ubiquitous K-pop is culture cancer. In South Korea, the dominance of K-pop is drowning a far more diverse music scene than most people know.

Yet this brutal response is similar to that of other totalitarian states of the past to pop culture. The Soviet Union also struggled to respond to its citizens’ affinity for the Beatles.

Mao Zedong launched a “cultural revolution” to purge China of Western influence, even to the point of destroying Western musical instruments like pianos and violins.

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The concern in all of these examples is the long-term threat to the values ​​that pop culture espouses. The origin of pop culture, especially music, in the West has often suggested values ​​of free expression, creativity, nonconformity, individualism, etc.

Retaliation against artists defying standards has been common. Indeed, in the early years of rock music, Elvis Presley’s suggestive dance was also a scandal in the United States.

In this video image provided by NBC, BTS performs at the Billboard Music Awards on Sunday, May 23, 2021. (NBC via AP)

Pop culture, with its emphasis on offbeat behavior, young people’s challenge to authority, non-traditional careers and sexual freedom, challenges traditional social mores common to dictatorships.

For example, North Korean society tends to be highly patriarchal, with men dominating major institutions, government, and the family.

The social and political status quo are mutually reinforcing. If traditional social relations of power should not be called into question, neither should the state. The ideals introduced by pop culture could arguably threaten political stability after disrupting social stability.

It is not clear from the literature on the dissolution of dictatorships whether pop culture is so threatening. Dictatorships usually fall because of internal divisions at the elite level. The idea that teens listening to rock and roll will challenge the state is rather fanciful.

But in closed and paranoid regimes, unauthorized state change is automatically suspect. And North Korea is more paranoid than most; hence the repression.

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There is, however, another reason, in the North Korean case, for these periodic repressions. The very existence of South Korea defies the northern regime. Its greatest success – in wealth, health, military might, and global prestige – directly attacks North Korea’s legitimacy.

If the two Koreas are supposed to be unified, as the two Koreas insist, and South Korea is much more advanced, then why does North Korea still exist? Just as East Germany gave up and joined West Germany, why doesn’t North Korea do the same?

This national threat triggers the North Korean obsession with penetrating anything from South Korea. Southern pop culture brings images of a freer, more open, richer, and more fun life than anything on offer in the North.

Life in North Korea is not only beset by famine and poverty, as we now know; it is also sinister. Cultural life is very restricted – mainly to propaganda – and therefore boring.

Virus outbreak in North Korea

Restaurant staff sanitize tables at Chongchun Restaurant in Pyongyang on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (AP Photo / Jon Chol Jin)

When I visited Pyongyang, our guards took us to the only “nightclub” in the whole country. It was a restaurant with music, and there were soldiers in the establishment with us. It was boring. In contrast, the nightlife in South Korea, where I live, is notoriously loud and fun.

Such images of South Korea are now easy to find in North Korea. In the late 1990s, a terrible famine hit the country. Starving people have crossed the Chinese border to bring back food.

They also brought back cultural products from China’s much more relaxed cultural market. South Korean pop culture entered the North on disk and flash drive, transmitted within North Korea as old Soviet samizdat writings.

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After the famine passed, these networks in northeast China have persisted, as malnutrition is a regular threat. And foreign cultural elements continued to infiltrate as well.

The regime struggled to know how to react. If he closes networks with China by sealing the border, he risks food insecurity.

North Korea’s collective agriculture is inefficient and cannot meet the caloric needs of the national population. A starving people might revolt if they face death. Thus, Chinese informal food intakes contribute to diet security by keeping the population nourished.

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But simultaneously, a younger generation of North Koreans are now enjoying the prosperity of the South. North Korean defectors have testified to wide, albeit illicit, access to South Korean media in the North.

Therefore, more North Koreans know that the regime ideology they learn about the exploitation and degradation of the South is a myth. And they know that life in the South is fun, exciting and open.

K-pop has become a signifier of all of these possibilities for change. It represents what North Korea could be if it were closer to the South.

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The crackdown is unlikely to work. Previous campaigns have generally failed too.

By now, millions of North Koreans have seen and heard K-pop and know how much better life is in the South. To eradicate this would require a massive campaign of re-indoctrination and confiscation, as well as the risky closure of the Chinese border.

And this is where the hope for change in North Korea lies: all those young people who consume South Korean pop culture will grow old and enter the institutions of the North, bringing with them new ideas of change and moderation.

Robert Kelly is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at the National University of Pusan.


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