SEOUL: In current months, North Korea has moved towards the home penetration of South Korean cultural merchandise, most significantly South Korean widespread music (K-pop).
The North has achieved this earlier than. In the previous, the regime has focused different “decadent” behaviours together with lengthy hair on males, blue denims, overseas movies and so forth.
This time, North Korean chief Kim Jong Un referred to as K-pop a “vicious cancer”. He launched legal guidelines final December that crack down on watching or possessing South Korean films, dramas and pop movies, with a penalty of as much as 15 years in labour camp. Smuggling such content material throughout the border may end in a loss of life penalty.
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These are sometimes trigger for bemused information protection elsewhere on the planet. What attainable menace might dyed hair or weepy ballads pose to a brutal autocracy?
Wags may even agree with Kim that ubiquitous K-pop is a most cancers on the tradition. In South Korea, K-pop’s dominance drowns out a much more numerous music scene than most individuals learn about.
Yet this sharp response is just like that of different totalitarian states prior to now to popular culture. The Soviet Union too struggled with how to reply to its residents’ affinity for the Beatles.
Mao Zedong famously launched a “cultural revolution” to purge China of western affect, even to the purpose of destroying western musical devices like pianos and violins.
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THE DANGER OF POP CULTURE
The concern in all these examples is the long-term menace of the values which popular culture espouses. The origin of popular culture, particularly music, within the West has typically advised values of free expression, creativity, non-conformity, individualism and so forth.
Pushback towards norm-defying artists has been frequent. Indeed, within the early years of rock music, Elvis Presley’s suggestive dancing was a scandal within the United States too.
Pop tradition, with its emphasis on off-beat behaviour, youthful problem to authority, non-traditional careers and sexual freedom, challenges the normal social mores frequent to dictatorships.
For instance, North Korean society tends to be extremely patriarchal, with males dominating main establishments, authorities and the household.
The social and political established order reinforce one another. If conventional social energy relations are to not be challenged, then neither is the state. Ideals launched by popular culture may arguably threaten political stability after they perturb social stability.
It will not be really clear from the literature on the dissolution of dictatorships if popular culture is that threatening. Dictatorships normally fall due to inner splits on the elite stage. The notion that youngsters listening to rock and roll will problem the state is slightly fanciful.
But in closed, paranoid polities, change not permitted by the state is routinely suspect. And North Korea is extra paranoid than most; therefore the crackdown.
THE EXISTENTIAL CHALLENGE POSED BY SOUTH KOREA
There is another excuse, nonetheless, within the North Korean case, for these periodic repressions. South Korea’s very existence challenges the North’s regime. Its better success – in wealth, well being, army energy and world status – instantly assault the legitimacy of North Korea.
If the 2 Koreas are speculated to be unified, as each Koreas insist, and South Korea is vastly extra superior, then why does North Korea nonetheless exist? Much as East Germany gave up and joined West Germany, why does North Korea not do the identical?
This nationwide menace fires North Korean obsession in regards to the penetration of something from South Korea. Southern popular culture brings pictures of a life extra free, extra open, wealthier and extra enjoyable than something on supply within the North.
Life in North Korea isn’t just beset by famine and poverty, as is well-known now; it’s also grim. Cultural life is extremely restricted – to propaganda largely – and therefore boring.
When I visited Pyongyang, our minders took us to the one “nightclub” in the entire nation. It was a restaurant with music, and there have been troopers within the facility with us. It was boring. By distinction, nightlife in South Korea, the place I dwell, is notoriously raucous and enjoyable.
Such imagery of South Korea is now simple to seek out in North Korea. In the late Nineties, a horrible famine struck the nation. Starving individuals crossed the border into China to convey again meals.
They additionally introduced again cultural merchandise from China’s considerably extra relaxed cultural market. South Korean popular culture entered the North on disc and flashkey, handed round inside North Korea like previous Soviet samizdat writings.
After the famine handed, these networks into northeastern China continued, as a result of malnourishment is a daily menace. And overseas cultural parts saved creeping in too.
The regime has struggled with methods to reply. If it closes the networks to China by sealing the border, it dangers meals insecurity.
North Korean collective agriculture is inefficient and can’t meet the caloric wants of the nationwide inhabitants. A ravenous individuals may revolt if they’re dealing with loss of life. So casual Chinese meals inflows assist regime safety by protecting the inhabitants fed.
A NEW GENERATION OF NORTH KOREANS
But concurrently, a youthful technology of North Koreans now is aware of in regards to the prosperity of the South. North Korean defectors have testified to vast, if illicit, entry to South Korean media within the North.
Hence extra North Koreans know the regime ideology they be taught in regards to the exploitation and degradation within the South is a fantasy. And they know that life within the South is enjoyable, thrilling, and open.
K-pop has turn out to be a signifier for all these prospects of change. It represents what North Korea may very well be if it had been nearer to the South.
The repression marketing campaign most likely is not going to work. Previous campaigns have usually failed too.
By now, tens of millions of North Koreans have seen and heard K-pop and are conscious how life is best within the South. To root that out would require a large marketing campaign of re-indoctrination and confiscation, plus the dangerous closing of the Chinese border.
And herein lies hope for change in North Korea: All these kids consuming South Korean popular culture will age and enter the North’s establishments, bringing with them new concepts of change and moderation.
Robert Kelly is Professor on the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.