Pop culture making inroads into North Korea


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SEOUL -- Ten years ago, when Kim Heung-gwang was still teaching computer science at a university in Pyongyang, you would be considered a serious political criminal if you had watched smuggled films or TV dramas produced by your enemy states -- South Korea and the U.S.

Often, the penalty was as severe as five years of hard labor in a North Korean prison camp. But now, such incidents have become so common on the North's college campuses and rural villages that the sentence has been reduced to the relatively minor penalty of unpaid labor of three months or less.

"It's safe to assume that a majority of North Korean residents have watched a South Korean film or a soap opera at least once," said Kim, who left North Korea in 2004, and established a think-tank in Seoul called the "North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity."

The group, which frequently communicates with their inside contacts in the North, recently broke revealing news that a group of North Korean students were caught watching "Haeundae," a mega-hit South Korean disaster film locally released just over a month ago, at a computer lab inside a Pyongyang college.

The defector group cited an anonymous source in Pyongyang who told their reporter that the government is tightening a crackdown of digital files, as South Korean films smuggled through China are endangering the North's dictatorial regime.

A student identified only as "Choi" said he had downloaded the film at his relative's house in Cheongjin, a city about 50 miles from the Chinese border. He was arrested for promoting the ideology of his enemy state, not for circulating a pirated film.

Since the late 1990s, South Korean dramas and films were illegally traded in the North through local businessmen frequenting the Chinese borders. The phenomenon is not unlike that from the young Soviets in the 1970s, who secretly acquired rock 'n' roll records and American videotapes through its black market, despite the country's ban on the cultural products of the capitalist state.

Last year, an insider from another defectors' group based in Seoul broke news that DVD compilations of South Korean adult films and TV dramas are becoming popular in the North, as the sales of the average South Korean soap opera has declined in recent years. Such DVDs were found in a North Korean market in Cheongjin, the group said through its newsletter.

The situation in the North has gotten to the point where Oh Yang-yeol, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, published a paper on "Hallyu in North Korea: Now and Future."

The term hallyu recalls the Korean wave of pop culture that hit Southeast Asia in the early 2000s. Oh's paper stresses the spread of South Korean fashion, drama and music among the younger generation of North Koreans.

In a separate release by the Korean Institute of National Unification, experts have quoted North Korean defectors who have testified that South Korean melodramas like "Autumn in My Heart" and "Winter Sonata" have become a such hit in the North that a special squad was once organized to crack down on the violators.

But not all dramas smuggled into the North are soft, touchy-feely soap operas. Among the works that have been found and blacklisted by the Northern authorities include films like Park Chan-wook's "Joint Security Area," a story which is essentially built around a forbidden friendship between solders from the North and South who are stationed in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two countries.

On the distribution side, South Korean films and TV dramas are appearing in the North faster and with a broader reach, as evident in the recent case of "Haeundae."

"In the past, it normally took up to six months for a South Korean film to arrive in the North," Oh said. "Now, it takes little over a month. In wealthier neighborhoods in Pyongyang we start to see local girls imitating the hairstyle and fashion of South Korean celebrities who starred in the latest TV dramas."

Irritated by the spread of hallyu -- often referred to as the "yellow wind" in the North -- authorities have tightened censorship regulations and house inspections to encourage "ideological discipline." But there is a limit as to what they can do.

Although limited to a privileged few, more computer-savvy Koreans in Pyongyang are finding easier alternatives to enjoy pop culture from the outside world, making the North's isolation more difficult. Internet access is limited to an Intranet for most people in the North. But USB drives are becoming more common among local college and middle school students, and frequent traffic between North Korea and China is increasing opportunities for cross-border smuggling of pirated films from Hollywood and Seoul.

In one news report released by the defectors' group, a citizen under investigation for watching "Haeundae" reportedly told authorities that the government should allow its people to watch a selection of South Korean films without political messages.

"It's possible that North Korean authority will come to a conclusion that censorship is meaningless and partly open up to hallyu content," Oh said. "Such an event will gradually weaken socialist ideals stressed in various aspects of North Korean society, because more people will look forward to content that's entertaining and stimulating."
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