“Have you ever worn a bulletproof backpack?” What does this sentence mean? South Korean K-pop superstar BTS is referred to as “bulletproof backpack” in North Korea. There, this question is used as a secret code meaning “Have you heard BTS’ music?” or “Are you a BTS fan?” In the North, where outside music including K-pop is banned, a local citizen was reportedly arrested for performing a BTS dance.
Today, we’ll talk about how young people in North Korea access music with Ha Seung-hee, visiting professor of the Institute of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University.
South Korean pop culture, including songs, is said to be explosively popular among young adults in North Korea. Here’s a North Korean defector.
Eight out of ten young North Koreans know about South Korean TV series and songs. They have probably watched at least one or two TV dramas and listened to over 100 songs.
North Korea has actively pushed for the development of science and technology as well as information literacy under the rule of current leader Kim Jong-un. As a result, many young people, as their new leisure activity, have shared media contents using mobile devices. Professor Ha says she paid attention to how technological development and the emergence of new music formats have influenced North Korea’s music culture.
In the past, people used cassette or CD players to listen to music before MP3 players appeared. Now, smartphones feature a music player function. In line with the technological change over time, audio devices have become smaller and music has become increasingly personalized.
A change like this is also taking place in North Korea. In the North, the new generation refers to those who were born between the late 1980s and 2000 or during the so-called Arduous March period when locals had to survive on their own through market activities. The young generation is sensitive about new trends and is willing to accept changes quickly.
According to a survey of North Korean defectors in their 20s and 30s who listened to music in their home country after current leader Kim Jong-un took power, the respondents said that they had seen or heard of cassette tapes but they hardly ever used them. To listen to music, they mostly used CD players before switching to MP3 and MP4 players. In other words, they experienced the evolution of audio formats.
CDs and DVDs that contain music or performance video files released in North Korea are produced by Kwangmyong Music Company and Mokran Video. They are then distributed by the Korea Publications Trading Company. Recorded videos are strictly controlled, except for those produced, distributed and sold by the authorities.
So, how did outside culture flow into the reclusive North? During the Arduous March period in the 1990s, North Korean residents engaged in trading and smuggling in regions bordering China to bring in foreign culture from outside. After the 2000 inter-Korean summit, South and North Korea carried out cultural exchanges in various areas, allowing North Korean citizens to experience South Korean pop culture, though in a limited way. The inflow of outside culture accelerated in the mid-and late-2000s, due to the expansion of digital technology. The introduction of Chinese DVD players and low-priced tablet PCs and USBs spread foreign culture in North Korea quickly. That is, locals were able to listen to outside music, including K-pop.
The younger or new generation in North Korea used to listen to music through CD players, which later gave way to MP3 and MP4 players.
CDs are relatively big and prone to getting scratched. In contrast, audio files in the MP3 format, which is characterized by small file sizes, made young North Koreans feel like they were in a whole new world. South Korean songs were illegally recorded or downloaded in China. Contained in storage devices, the songs were circulated in North Korea through the private market or jangmadang. It was found that a single music file contained various songs covering all different eras and genres.
While the MP3 is exclusively used for audio, the devices supporting the MP4 can play both audio and video. With the appearance of the MP4, the way of consuming music shifted to watching music videos from simply listening to music. At the time, MP3 and MP4 players were quite expensive in North Korea. But those who did not have those devices felt a sense of deprivation in their peer group, indicating that the devices were extremely popular.
When North Koreans listened to music in the MP3 file format, they weren’t really interested in singers. While watching music videos in the MP4 format, however, they could see the singers on the screen and recognize who sang the songs. According to researchers, MP3 players were expensive when they were introduced in North Korea and MP4 players were even rarer. Those who had the new devices faced a huge risk of crackdowns and could suffer severe consequences. Only a small number of people could possess the high-priced gadgets and share them with their friends.
The appearance of smartphones and tablet PCs brought about major changes in people’s lifestyles and culture in North Korea, just like the rest of the world. The changes were also found in the way of enjoying music as well. Young people in North Korea began to store music in USBs and SD cards to listen to the music through their smartphones.
While a tape was the container format for a cassette player in the past, an SD card is inserted into a smartphone today. It can store music and other files but it does not hold browsing history. The tiny flash memory card is easy to carry and hide, so the use of SD cards is increasing.
Smartphones, in general, have music apps, and there are also music player apps available for tablet PCs. In North Korea, various music-related contents are being developed. In 2020, North Korea’s propaganda outlet “Meari” reported that the country’s Hana Music Information Center released a karaoke program for handsets called “Emotion 1.0.” Using the karaoke app, several people select songs and sing. After singing, the screen displays scores and decides the ranking. The app also allows users to sing a solo and appreciate music. The app shows that North Korean people like to enjoy music in a group.
When the karaoke app is activated, background music is played and lyrics appear on the screen, just like how South Korea’s singing room or noraebang works. North Korean authorities release propaganda songs that could be played on screen-based music programs like this. They spread the new songs through newspapers, TV and radio, and make the people gather in small groups to learn the songs. Sometimes, the state-run Korean Central Television airs screen-based music programs in between shows.
Audio devices have evolved from CD players to MP3, MP4 players and smartphones. In the process, more and more young people have opted to enjoy music personally.
When listening to music in North Korea, locals are always mindful of the authorities’ monitoring and censorship. When listening to North Korean pop music with many people on special occasions like birthdays, they use speakers. When enjoying foreign music like South Korean songs, on the other hand, they use earphones. But it is hard to find North Koreans walking around with earphones in. Why?
South Koreans use earphones to cancel out outside noise. But if North Koreans are walking on the streets with earphones in, they are subject to censorship. It was found that young people use earphones when listening to music alone at home.
In North Korea, there are earphones that feature Bluetooth connectivity. A North Korean propaganda outlet mentioned Bluetooth earphones offered by the Arirang Information Technology Products Store. It showed the phrases like “convenient Bluetooth earphones when working out” and “Bluetooth earphones with good sound quality.” It is said that people use the convenient, hands-free ear buds when they ride bicycles or motorcycles. For young male students, earphones are considered to be a sort of fashion item or accessory.
As North Koreans accessed K-pop and foreign music more frequently than before, the authorities began to tightly control it and crack down on it. Under a revision to its criminal law in 2015, North Korea imposed heavy punishment on those who simply watched or listened to the so-called decadent cultural content such as South Korean TV dramas and songs. In 2017, leader Kim Jong-un instructed secretaries of party cells to root out non-socialist practices.
In his New Year’s speech in 2018, the leader urged the people to be wary of non-socialist elements.
A vigorous struggle should be waged to eliminate all kinds of non-socialist practices so as to ensure all the people, possessed of noble mental and moral traits, lead a revolutionary and cultured life.
North Korea adopted a law against reactionary thought and culture in 2020, the Youth Education Guarantee Act in 2021 and the Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Act in 2023. The purpose of those laws is to keep the people under control and maintain the regime. The country also tightened its control over mobile phones. Here’s a North Korean defector who escaped from the North in 2016.
When I was in North Korea, I would insert an SD card into my phone to watch South Korean dramas. It’s easy to put in and take out the card, so we can avoid censorship. Leader Kim Jong-un urged officials to keep tight control over SD cards and the authorities closed all the SD card slots in phones.
As more and more North Koreans used SD cards to enjoy South Korean songs and videos, it seems the authorities went as far as to prevent SD cards from physically being installed in phones.
In line with the evolution of storage devices for music, the North Korean authorities’ censorship and regulations have changed as well. Users, in turn, have devised more sophisticated roundabout ways to bypass the authorities’ censorship.
Technological development has made the authorities change their way to censor and control storage devices and this prompted local residents to find a way to evade the censorship. For instance, the authorities install a program to record browsing data in phones. Through random searches, they collect all the phones that contain illegal contents. They alter the phones in a way to be unable to read any memory card. But users never sit idle. They create their own programs that can delete browsing data on their phones and produce new programs capable of recognizing outside contents by deceiving the authorities’ program designed to block them.
In 2019, a Washington Post article titled “How K-pop is luring young North Korean to cross the line” carried interviews of young North Korean defectors, who said they admired new culture while listening to K-pop. The paper also said that South Korea’s K-pop is playing a similar role to Western music, such as songs of the Beatles and David Bowie, during the Cold War.
We’ll have to wait and see how South Korean pop culture can change young North Koreans and their society.