Commentary: Why K-pop threatens North Korea's Kim Jong Un
The notion of pop music-loving teenagers challenging the state is rather fanciful, but the hope for change still lies in them, says Robert Kelly.
SEOUL: In recent months, North Korea has moved against the domestic penetration of South Korean cultural products, most importantly South Korean popular music (K-pop).
The North has done this before. In the past, the regime has targeted other “decadent” behaviours including long hair on men, blue jeans, foreign films and so on.
This time, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called K-pop a “vicious cancer”. He introduced laws last December that crack down on watching or possessing South Korean movies, dramas and pop videos, with a penalty of up to 15 years in labour camp. Smuggling such content across the border might result in a death penalty.
These are often cause for bemused news coverage elsewhere in the world. What possible threat could dyed hair or weepy ballads pose to a brutal autocracy?
Wags might even agree with Kim that ubiquitous K-pop is a cancer on the culture. In South Korea, K-pop’s dominance drowns out a far more diverse music scene than most people know about.
Yet this sharp response is similar to that of other totalitarian states in the past to pop culture. The Soviet Union too struggled with how to respond to its citizens’ affinity for the Beatles.
Mao Zedong famously 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 DANGER OF POP CULTURE
The concern in all these examples is the long-term threat of the values which pop culture espouses. The origin of pop culture, especially music, in the West has often suggested values of free expression, creativity, non-conformity, individualism and so on.
Pushback against norm-defying artists has been common. Indeed, in the early years of rock music, Elvis Presley’s suggestive dancing was a scandal in the United States too.
Pop culture, with its emphasis on off-beat behaviour, youthful challenge to authority, non-traditional careers and sexual freedom, challenges the 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 reinforce each other. If traditional social power relations are not to be challenged, then neither is the state. Ideals introduced by pop culture might arguably threaten political stability after they perturb social stability.
It is not actually clear from the literature on the dissolution of dictatorships if pop culture is that threatening. Dictatorships usually fall because of internal splits at the elite level. The notion that teenagers listening to rock and roll will challenge the state is rather fanciful.
But in closed, paranoid polities, change not permitted by the state is automatically suspect. And North Korea is more paranoid than most; hence the crackdown.
THE EXISTENTIAL CHALLENGE POSED BY SOUTH KOREA
There is another reason, however, in the North Korean case, for these periodic repressions. South Korea’s very existence challenges the North’s regime. Its greater success – in wealth, health, military power and global prestige – directly attack the legitimacy of North Korea.
If the two Koreas are supposed to be unified, as both Koreas insist, and South Korea is vastly more advanced, then why does North Korea still exist? Much as East Germany gave up and joined West Germany, why does North Korea not do the same?
This national threat fires North Korean obsession about the penetration of anything from South Korea. Southern pop culture brings images of a life more free, more open, wealthier and more fun than anything on offer in the North.
Life in North Korea is not just beset by famine and poverty, as is well known now; it is also grim. Cultural life is highly restricted – to propaganda mostly – and hence dull.
When I visited Pyongyang, our minders took us to the only “nightclub” in the whole country. It was a restaurant with music, and there were soldiers in the facility with us. It was boring. By contrast, nightlife in South Korea, where I live, is notoriously raucous and fun.
Such imagery of South Korea is now easy to find in North Korea. In the late 1990s, a terrible famine struck the country. Starving people crossed the border into China to bring back food.
They also brought back cultural products from China’s significantly more relaxed cultural marketplace. South Korean pop culture entered the North on disc and flashkey, passed around inside North Korea like old Soviet samizdat writings.
After the famine passed, these networks into northeastern China persisted, because malnourishment is a regular threat. And foreign cultural elements kept creeping in too.
The regime has struggled with how to respond. If it closes the networks to China by sealing the border, it risks food insecurity.
North Korean collective agriculture is inefficient and cannot meet the caloric needs of the national population. A starving people might revolt if they are facing death. So informal Chinese food inflows help regime security by keeping the population fed.
A NEW GENERATION OF NORTH KOREANS
But simultaneously, a younger generation of North Koreans now knows about the prosperity of the South. North Korean defectors have testified to wide, if illicit, access to South Korean media in the North.
Hence more North Koreans know the regime ideology they learn about the exploitation and degradation in the South is a myth. And they know that life in the South is fun, exciting, and open.
K-pop has become a signifier for all these possibilities of change. It represents what North Korea could be if it were closer to the South.
The repression campaign probably will not work. Previous campaigns have generally failed too.
By now, millions of North Koreans have seen and heard K-pop and are aware how life is better in the South. To root that out would require a massive campaign of re-indoctrination and confiscation, plus the risky closing of the Chinese border.
And herein lies hope for change in North Korea: All those youngsters consuming South Korean pop culture will age and enter the North’s institutions, bringing with them new ideas of change and moderation.
Robert Kelly is Professor at the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.