K-Pop: A potential weapon liberating North Korea?

Written by Kristýna Hřivnáčová |

The day is sunny and crisp, the autumn just settling in. Cars roll up to the wall separating North Korea from the South, men springing up and heading for – but it can’t be? – speakers? And huge ones at that, easily twice the size of the soldiers surrounding them.

First, news play, then criticism of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. And after that, loud bass and several male voices follow, joined in an upbeat, club-fit tune which the people over the border most probably don’t know but millions across the world would dance to without hesitation – Bang Bang Bang by BIGBANG , the top-selling and most-streamed song in South Korea in 2015.

Although South Korea agreed to stop the musical propaganda in order to lower the tensions on the peninsula, the fact that they tried shows just how much faith can be put into music. Music is an integral part of life, after all: we sing along to the radio, bob our feet to the beat, hum along distractedly when we’re washing the dishes.

Sometimes, songs become bigger. The French could be heard singing the Marseillaise in 1795 and the working classes knew the Internationale. Music can speak about the problems of the time just as well as any historical document or piece of journalism; from John Lennon’s Imagine to Same Love by Macklemore and Mary Lambert, generations explore their society through music.

It is no wonder, then, that some people consider that K-Pop will play an important part in the – possible, eventual, future – reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

Red Velvet at the Hallyu K-Pop Concert in Incheon (via Wikimedia Commons)

Music in North Korea, similarly to just about anything else, is a way of keeping the nation in a certain headspace dominated by state-approved beliefs. The modern age of smartphones and the internet, however, has made it harder for the Workers’ Party to keep everyone in line where South Korean and western entertainment is concerned. TV shows and songs can be downloaded and streamed with just a few bits of technology, rendering control and prevention difficult, and so a decision has been made to give the people what they want – but in a North Korean style. In an attempt of public appeasement, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has initiated a formation of a girl group.

Donning short skirts and high heels, the Moranbong Band somewhat resembles the K-Pop of the South. Kim Jong-Un could be taking a shot in the dark with them; simply taking the stab at something new. The trouble with Moranbong, though, is that they’re all military officials (who knows if they had foreseen such future when they signed the employment contract), which comfortably steers them under the roof of state propaganda, this time custom made for the younger generations. 

According to American records, Kim is 34 years old, not much older than the millennial generation he’s trying to win over. Starting up rip-off versions of K-Pop bands (and dramas) could draw them to him. His entertainment industry, however, can in no way compare to the multi-billion freight train that has taken off years before him in the South, and reportedly doesn’t enjoy as much popularity.

“K-Pop has changed North Korean youths significantly, especially young women,” says Ingyu Oh, the founder and president of the World Association for Hallyu (Korean) Studies.

“The effect of anything related to South Korean pop culture on women is massive because they find South Korea is much freer, more developed, and friendlier to women than North Korea.” 

“South Korean pop culture provides [women] with a new global outlook as to how they should live their lives,” Oh continues, “especially a desire to be a global woman instead of being a second sex in North Korea without any hope of seeing the outside world before they die.”

It has been decades since the ceasefire, rather than a peace treaty, was signed in 1953. In that time, many things have changed on both sides of the Demilitarised Zone that separates North Korea from the South, but it is especially the southern part that has made its mark on the world stage, not only in the electronics industry with Samsung and the automotive with Hyundai but also in music.

K-Pop is usually used as an umbrella term for any type of modern music coming from South Korea. Everything from actual pop to gospels and hip hop drove the Hallyu wave higher and further, leading it to global popularity – and acquiring a ban in North Korea.

That is not a new thing, of course. Crossing the border has been difficult for decades and the South Korean entertainment, along with many other things, is most unwelcome in North Korea. Getting caught watching a K-Drama or singing a K-Pop song could get you severely punished, reportedly even executed.

“Enjoying anything from South Korea is illegal in North Korea,” Je Son-Le, a North Korean defector, told Thump in 2015. “In the case of a sudden police raid, if we fail to hide the tape or CD in advance, it would be used as an evidence against us.”

The ban and the prospect of possible punishment haven’t stopped people, though, as the Northerners manage to sneak around USBs, CDs and tapes, even setting up underground nightclubs.

“North Korea fears the impact of opening up the society [to] foreign influences,” says Gabriel Jonsson, a lecturer of Korean Studies at the Stockholm University and author of Towards Korean Reconciliation: Socio-cultural Exchanges and Cooperation. That is why cultural exchanges have been scarce and tightly controlled in the past.

One example for all would be the visit of over 150 South Korean artists, singers included, to Pyongyang this March, an answer to North Korea sending cheerleaders and athletes to join their Southern counterparts in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. The level of negotiation included in the spectacle named Spring Is Coming was widely discussed. If the choreography, song-choices, wording, and outfits were under discussion, how much of the original message was left to be experienced? Despite that, hope prevails.

“If cultural contacts become regular and involve many people,” says Jonsson, “they could affect society in the long run.

K-Pop fans have a say in the debate, too, seeing as they already know how easy it is to fall in love with the singers. Tuli Hulpe has been an avid EXO follower for years and knows as much about K-Pop and Korea as anyone who plans on moving there next year.

“I think there’s definitely limits to what music itself can do,” Tuli says, “but it can help the relationship between countries because everyone likes music. I think [Red Velvet, a popular K-Pop girl group] performing in North Korea was a step in the right direction.”

EXO performing their song Monster on the Suwon K-Pop Super Concert in 2016, via Wikimedia Commons.

The recent slow opening up to the West has shown that Kim Jong-Un has if not a desire to, then at least an inclination towards accepting new possibilities and opportunities. It might be quite hard to imagine that K-Pop, a genre generally apolitical and devoid of any controversy, could spark such change.

Sometimes, though, a song doesn’t have to scream for revolution, justice and human rights; it’s quite possible the North Koreans are not prepared for anything of that scale anyway. Songs about love, friendship, and ordinary life, though, might just be the push that’ll tip the scales.