14.09.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Fighting Pop Culture Fashion in North Korea


The South Korean media periodically publishes stories about how the North represses yet another group of teenagers.  The last such news story the author came across was from Korea Times: A group of Anju Middle School students, while on a Red Youth Guard internship, were spotted singing and dancing to a song by South Korean boy band BTS, “Blood, Sweat & Tears.” According to an unverified anonymous source, North Korea knows that the band has topped the Billboard charts many times, and young North Koreans like  the songs of BTS because of their meaningful lyrics that tell listeners to “love themselves.” Not the motherland!

How accurate are the rumors about the death penalty for listening to South Korean music? If one reads the official media of DPRK carefully, attention to youth issues and the struggle against alien cultural influences can be traced there constantly and quite often. The leading newspaper Rodong Sinmun publishes an article at least once a month on the need to fight anti-socialist and non-socialist culture.

The country’s Criminal Code has an article punishing the viewing, distribution and sale of a decadent culture, which includes not only pornography but also ideologically harmful material, including South Korean content.

In addition, there is the law of late 2020. Indeed, the KCNA has not published the text of the decree, and all details about it are known only from the obviously inflated anti-Pyongyang propaganda. Possession of South Korean media products is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and their illegal importation in significant quantities by life imprisonment. Those guilty of smuggling large quantities of media products from the US or Japan could face the death penalty altogether.    In addition, those who adopt the South Korean way of speaking or singing can expect up to two years of hard labor.

On July 18, 2021 Rodong Sinmun published another article on the danger posed by the risk of infiltrating ”reactionary and bourgeois culture.” The article states that “the ideological and cultural penetration of reactionary bourgeois ideology is more dangerous than that of an armed enemy.” “When the new generations have a sound sense of ideology and a revolutionary spirit, the future of the country is bright. If not, decades-long social systems and revolution will be perished. That is the lesson of blood in the history of the world’s socialist movement.”

The article pays special attention to the need to follow the North Korean standard of literary language (“there is no speech in the world more beautiful than that of Pyongyang”) and an acceptable way of life in terms of dress, hairstyle, music and dance.

Here it is necessary to make some clarifications: in terms of vocabulary, North and South Korean vocabularies are different, and the insertion of South Korean words or expressions into the language, or the use of familiar words in South Korean meaning, is a reminder of the slang consisting of Anglicisms that was in fashion among Soviet hippies or other informal people.  The most commonly used example is the word “oppa”, which actually means “older brother”, but in the modern Republic of Korea, it refers to a spouse or boyfriend, meaning “sugar daddy.”

No less interesting is the article in the Rodong Sinmun of August 27, 2021, published on the eve of the Youth Day, an excerpt from which I would like to simply quote without any edits:

“Educating the youth to be true masters of moral and cultural ideals is an important question, on the solution of which depends on the future of the country and the continuity of the revolution. Today’s youth represent a generation that has never faced the trials of revolution. For this reason, hostile forces are now obsessively clinging to reactionary ideological and cultural maneuvers to infiltrate and morally corrupt the new generation of revolutionaries in our country.

When the representatives of the new generation become the bearers of superior socialist mores and culture, the noble spirit of our socialist ideology will blossom throughout the country. But suppose they are tainted by capitalist morality and Western culture based on individualism. In that case, young people will turn into morally ugly, inferior people who seek only personal comfort and pleasure and become enemies of the socialist revolution.

Socialism collapsed in several countries not because life there was difficult, nor because their national defenses were weak. This was because the corrosive winds of capitalism had swept over a new generation of revolutionaries in a wave: society had become heterogeneous, and young people, deceived by the “winds of change”, had taken the initiative in destroying their own livelihoods. History has taught us that bourgeois morality and culture are dangerous toxins that can poison the minds of a new generation and lead them to reject socialism.”

Such a detailed passage indicates that the problem is not only seen but also recognized and openly discussed. On the other hand, it is openly written that the penetration of Western values must change the minds of young people and undermine their loyalty to the regime.

South Korean writer John Lee writes in the pages of NK News that “K-pop and K-dramas are cultural publications that advocate personal freedom, uniqueness, style, beauty, love and material wealth” threaten the regime as much as US military might. “As more North Koreans begin to recognize the gulf that exists between what the regime tells them life is like outside and what they see with their own eyes, trust and confidence in the North Korean state will decay.”

Park Yoon-bae, editor of The Korea Times, seems to express: “The growing popularity of hallyu shows that the Kim Jong-un regime has failed to prevent the influx of K-pop and other South Korean cultural products into the North, despite its prolonged border closures to stave off the coronavirus. South Korean pop culture products appear to have provided comfort and entertainment for many North Koreans who have long become weary of life under the regime due to the North’s economic failures and chronic food shortages as well as rampant human rights abuses.” Therefore, “foreign influences such as K-pop and other cultural products may pose an existential threat to the North Korean regime,” which can only respond to this challenge with increased repression.

But how much of this is true of South Korean politician and North Korean defector Thae Yong-ho, who told Reuters in January 2021: “During the day, people chant: “Long live Kim Jong-un!” – but in the evenings, they all go to watch South Korean TV series and movies?”

In the author’s opinion, there is a certain aberration of consciousness. We remember that Thae Yong-ho ran away primarily because his completely Europeanized children didn’t want to go home for political training and subbotniks (voluntary community workdays).

However, the North Korean leadership has reason to take action, and we know this from statements by certain kinds of career defectors like Park Yeon-mi, Nara Kang or Lee Hyeon-seo. As a rule, these are the children of “money-masters” or middle-class provincial elite who fled with their family when the head of the family died, lost his status, or the clouds gathered over him. Their testimony fits well with the understanding that the stratum of young people who regularly watch South Korean shows is well versed in global brands and fits the Russian definition of “golden kids”.

The problem is that, as the Soviet experience also shows, it is hard to fight foreign cultural influences with bans alone. It is necessary to strengthen ideological education and produce the equivalent cultural content, which would be competitive.  The work in this direction has been going on for a long time. Still, it is not clear whether the contemporary music videos of Wangjaesan, Moranbong and Chongbong Bands, reminding either Vanessa-Mae or Soviet pop music of the late 80s, are an adequate response.

And the DPRK’s media are urged to intensify “the cultivation of a noble moral spirit and ideology of cultural life among young people” and “pay attention to cultivating attitudes based on ”responsibility and the spirit of collectivity to properly imbue the minds of the new generation with the foundations of moral life.” It is the answer to the question “what to do” but not the answer to the question “by what means” the foundations of moral life can be laid in the minds of young people.

The Bottom line is that North Korea understands the need to work with young people, and Pyongyang’s opponents openly talk about cultural infiltration as a way to bring down the regime. Such open purposefulness compels the North Korean leadership to take action, but the scale and harshness of these measures have traditionally been magnified by anti-Pyongyang propaganda. Arguments about mass repressions and the fact that almost every young North Korean secretly listens to K-pop and dreams of democracy belong to the realm of propaganda fiction in the author’s opinion.  Let’s look for analogues to such events. The fight against Stilyagi (and later on against other fashion deviants) in the USSR or similar events in South Korea in the 70s, when the police measured the length of men’s hair and women’s skirts, and a hipster could have been forced to have his hair cut.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.