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T-ara, Titanic, and Taeyeon: Pop Culture and North Korea


By Lilka Marino

Recent tensions along the Demilitarized Zone have been notable for one reason: North Korea launched rockets at loudspeakers that broadcasted an array of propaganda from regional and international news, weather reports, and economic updates from both sides of the border. Curiously enough, the program also included certain K-pop songs chosen for their uplifting and inspirational lyrics. The contents of this broadcasts were enough for Pyongyang to threaten “strong military action” should they continue. While the rest of the contents of each program seem like a logical irritant to a regime that depends on maintaining factual silence from the outside world, the innocence of K-pop seems like an unlikely candidate to cause the recent “quasi-state of war”.

In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick reports the official party line towards foreign media and contraband, by a defector who received this lecture at work:

Our enemies are using these specially made materials to beautify the world of imperialism and to spread their utterly rotten, bourgeoisie lifestyles. If we allow ourselves to be affected by these unusual materials, our revolutionary mind-set and class awareness will be paralyzed and our absolute idolization for the Marshal [Kim Il-sung] will disappear.[1]

While a government such as the Kim regime does rely on its self imposed isolation, and keeping its people from outside influences[2], the reality does not reflect the regime’s expectations. In August, three North Koreans were executed for watching South Korean television programs on their mobile phones.  This execution, along with the threat to destroy the loudspeakers is indicative of the growing fascination with the outside world and pop culture, along with the recent demand for designer handbags and high heeled shoes, trends in East Asia that North Korean women began to emulate when Ri Sol-ju, wife of Kim Jong-eun, adopted them for herself. Foreign culture has settled into the isolated nation, and will not dissipate anytime soon.

While most foreign media and culture was discouraged in North Korea, the interest in foreign culture started with legal translations of Western classics in the mid-1980s. Kim Il-sung ordered these translations in limited quantities for writers to improve their ability; translations included Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. A decade later, these books were made available for the general public to purchase.

Quite possibly the most popular work to be translated, and possibly the most famous example of Pyongyang’s fascination with foreign culture was Gone With the Wind, first translated in a three volume series and released along with other American novels from the 1900s-1960s. The novel permeates North Korean society. When teaching English at PUST, Suki Kim reported that the only American book her college students were aware of was Margaret Mitchell’s work. The typically restricted film adaptation is shown to upper class North Koreans to teach English; one defector reported that the film was a favorite of the elite. Consequently, when the Samjiyon tablet made its infamous debut in 2013, it came preloaded with not only a ported version of Angry Birds, but also Gone With the Wind.

The biggest indication of national fascination is shown by the people’s love of the novel. Gone With the Wind has even made an appearance in talks between North Korean envoys and the United States, with the former apparently quoting “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” during negotiations. One defector reported that for a time, one could not go into Pyongyang and not avoid discussing the work, and that everyone had an opinion about strong Scarlett O’Hara, swashbuckling Rhett Butler, and the destruction of the Confederacy by the Union’s hands. It is the latter that experts speculate that holds the most appeal to North Koreans, along with the plucky heroine, who manages to rebuild and prosper after losing everything to war.

Regardless of what message North Koreans heard from Mitchell’s work, it was clear that the average North Korean is hungry for information from the outside world. This hunger would not always be fed through legal means. In the jammadang open-air markets, one student bought and read a translated book from Russia regarding how capitalism had evolved since Marx wrote his Manifesto, and realized he was being kept in the dark on purpose. How could South Korea and China be worse off than North Korea if Chinese and South Korean goods were pouring into the jammadang?[3]  Another defector reported seeing pirated DVDs and portable DVD players. These DVDs were both Hollywood movies and episodes of South Korean dramas, which sold quickly.[4] A market grew from the demand for media in particular; by 2013, brokers would wait in markets for buyers, who would ask them for the next episodes, waiting only a few weeks after their initial airing in South Korea.

These brokers, usually working with a group known as the North Korea Strategy Center (which focuses on smuggling foreign media into North Korea), feed the demand for drams, movies, eBooks, and music. They are responsible for bringing 3,000 thumb drives into the nation annually. Founder Kang Chol-hwan likened this media to the infamous “red pill” from the Matrix franchise. One broker, a defector by the name of Jung Kwang-il, is another smuggler who deals exclusively with delivering foreign media to the jammadang. He has documented his practice of delivering laptops, radios, thumb drives, and DVDs to North Korean sellers on PBS Frontline. When asked why he risked his life to do this, Jung said:

[North Koreans are] sharing thumb drives a lot. Even officials have one or two. North Korea is trying to hunt them down because the thing that changes people’s mindsets is popular culture. It probably has the most important role in bringing about democracy in North Korea.

It’s been reported that almost half of the North Koreans who defect had watched foreign television, even though it’s illegal. Countless defectors cite foreign pop culture as the spark that made them start doubting North Korea. Park Yeon-mi credited the popular film Titanic as starting a “moral crisis”, as both the idea of a man sacrificing his life for a woman as well as the economic development of the early twentieth century being far more advanced than what she had in the twentieth-first century in North Korea would aid her family’s decision to leave.

Surveys of defectors suggest that more than a million North Koreans listen to illegal foreign radio. A fisherman accidentally picked up a South Korean radio program with two women arguing over a parking spot, which was an inconceivable notion to him, as he could not imagine a scenario where there were so many cars that anyone would have to fight over parking.[5] While mp3 and mp4 players are legal in North Korea, downloading foreign media to them is definitely not. Yet one defector theorized that if you “cracked down” on high school and university students who owned the devices in North Korea, all of them would have South Korean music on them.

South Korean dramas were especially powerful to defectors; the sheer beauty in the clothing of the actors and the bustling streets with healthy looking actors and flashy billboards advertising all sorts of goods made watching more addictive; it was fun to picture living in a trendy Seoul apartment until one realized that the reality reflected in Pyongyang’s propaganda did not match up to what they were watching on their portable DVD players. Expert Andrei Lankov has described the fascination with South Korean pop culture within North Korea as, possibly, “the single most important development of the last ten years”.

Seoul has even created media targeted at North Koreans in order to take advantage of this growing interest. One such example is Open Radio for North Korea, a radio station staffed by defectors that broadcast news and personal messages towards Pyongyang. Another is the television program known as Now On My Way to Meet You, which stars North Korean women who now live in Seoul. Part news, part variety show, and part beauty contest, the show aims to show North Koreans the truth about life in the outside world and to especially empower other female defectors. One star even said that she believed that her friends “back home” watch it, fantasize about life south of the DMZ, and even want to defect, too.

Despite the growing demand for foreign media, Kim Jong Un has reportedly sent his security forces house to house, searching for illegal DVDs, and in November 2013 ordered the execution of as many as 80 people, some for watching foreign television. Authorities punished thirty college students with hard labor for watching “Until the Azalea Blooms” on their cell phones last June. Despite the death toll attributed to consuming foreign pop culture, North Koreans still are willing to risk their lives distributing and owning music videos, DVDs, clothes, books, and so much more from the outside world. With this forbidden fruit comes knowledge, and with knowledge, agency.

A young defector summed the allure of pop culture to North Koreans best: “No matter how many people die, the sensational popularity doesn’t die…that is the power of culture.”

Lilka Marino received her Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies from Hollins University with a double concentration in leadership theory and social sciences. Her interests include North Korean politics, Korean history, and traditional Korean culture. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from Darrell Miller’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


[1] Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. New York. Spiegel and Grau, 2009. Print.  p 255.

[2] Myers, B. R. The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House, 2010. Print. p 55-75

[3] Demick, pg. 260.

[4] Demick, pg. 255.

[5] Demick, pg. 260

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