The South Korean pop culture boom, known as hallyu or the Korean Wave, is sweeping across the entire world. Recently, the popular boy band BTS had a much-celebrated concert tour of major international cities including London, which enhanced the status of K-pop worldwide. In addition, South Korean food, movies and fashion and beauty products are also drawing special attention in various parts of the world, including the planet’s most reclusive country: North Korea.
Today, we’ll talk about the surging popularity of South Korean pop culture in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula with Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector and reporter at the Seoul-based online newspaper, Daily NK.
South Korean movies entered North Korea in the early 2000s, starting from the border areas. They later spread to other regions, including Gaeseong. I heard citizens in Pyongyang began to watch South Korean dramas and films from the mid-2000s. Now, North Korean people can easily access them wherever they are.
South Korean TV shows and films were already so popular in the 2000s that people who hadn’t seen any of them couldn’t take part in conversations. To join in the conversation, many North Koreans were willing to spend what little money they had on South Korean movies or songs.
In North Korea, South Korean pop music was denounced as “delinquent styles” and the “yellow dust of capitalism.” North Korean authorities strictly banned citizens from viewing or listening to South Korean dramas or music, labeling them as decadent publications. In the past, violators were imprisoned and even faced a sentence of death or life in prison.
But hallyu began to seep into North Korea in 2000 when then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung visited Pyongyang for the first-ever inter-Korean summit and presented some South Korean soap operas and films to his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il as a gift. Riding on the warm diplomatic mood, those dramas and movies began to circulate in the North. Before long, hallyu crossed the Sino-North Korean border and permeated all across North Korea.
Formerly, North Korean people were taught from childhood to show hostility to South Korea. But after their nation suffered from severe economic difficulties in the 1990s, they came to believe the rumors that South Koreans were well off. They were convinced of the fact after seeing photos of the South.
North Korean movies and dramas are mostly about ideological education and propaganda campaigns. Citizens were sick and tired of them as they had been exposed to them for too long. Against this backdrop, they were completely fascinated by South Korean entertainment.
For North Korean residents, hallyu is another window through which they can see the outside world. They have long lived in a closed society where it is difficult to enjoy culture on their own. South Korean cultural contents help them discover new aspects of their southern neighbor and experience freedom in an indirect way. Contrary to what they were taught, South Korean people in the dramas and movies appeared to enjoy free, affluent and comfortable lives. It is said that many North Koreans use hallyu content as a means of getting away from their weary and harsh reality, though only for a short while. So how does South Korean pop culture find its way into North Korea?
In the early years, CDs and DVDs containing South Korean dramas and films were smuggled into North Korea from China. Beginning in the 2010s, people used USB flash drives because they are smaller than CDs and easy to hide. CDs cannot be removed from the player when the electricity is out unless the player is broken, and therefore can be seized as evidence. USBs are a preferred means of disseminating South Korean cultural content in the North.
South Korean cultural products flow into North Korea from China as contraband goods and are traded in private markets known as jangmadang. North Koreans can easily view South Korean video materials on CDs or DVDs as long as they have a notebook computer, a color TV and a DVD player. Hallyu is moving faster in North Korea these days because the development of digital media makes it easier to avoid crackdowns.
To prevent the Korean wave from spreading, North Korean authorities control the border with China and regulate all media equipment suspected of containing hallyu content. However, hallyu has become so prevalent in North Korea that many regulators themselves enjoy South Korean pop culture. In line with the increasing consumption of hallyu in the North, local residents are showing greater interest in South Korean goods.
When visiting someone’s home, North Koreans often examine what kind of South Korean products they can find there. These days, one’s economic power is gauged by whether they possess South Korean goods and how many of the products they have. On a similar note, parents are eager to buy South Korean items as a wedding gift for their children, no matter how expensive they are.
North Korean women are more proud of South Korean handbags than locally-made or Chinese alternatives. Many citizens cherish South Korean shoes so much and they wear them only on special occasions. If a family does not have any South Korean products, it is seen as a poor household.
South Korean lifestyles described in TV shows, films and music are changing the lives of the North Korean people. For instance, electric pressure rice cookers, which frequently appear in South Korean dramas, have become one of the most essential items when preparing for marriage in the North. More and more North Koreans are also drinking instant coffee mix, which is also commonly found in South Korean dramas and commercials.
Many North Korean women emulate the looks and hairstyles of popular South Korean actresses. For example, the makeup style of actress Jun Ji-hyun, who played a leading role in the mega-hit drama “My Love from the Star,” became all the rage in the North a few years ago.
The South Korean pop culture boom has also brought a change in the North Korean language. Unlike their Southern counterparts, North Koreans rarely use honorific forms when talking with each other, even with seniors. The most honorific title is reserved for their top leader. But the common use of honorific forms and the soft, polite way of speaking shown in South Korean films and dramas are influencing the way North Koreans talk and think.
South Korean culture and products have allowed North Korean citizens to experience what they had never even imagined before. In the South Korean language, they find respect, flexibility and consideration for others, which is certainly different from what they have seen, heard and learned in their closed, regimented society. I think there has been a major change in their way of thinking and hallyu has played a big part in that process.
While watching the scenes portraying South Korea, which are completely different from what their government has said, North Koreans ask themselves questions like, “How on earth was South Korea able to achieve such remarkable economic development?” and “Why are people across the border so free?”
Due to these questions, a change in thinking will naturally lead to an overall change in North Korean society and narrow the differences between South and North Korea in ideas and culture. And hallyu, South Korea’s soft power, is at the center of this meaningful transformation of North Korea.