Hallyu’s hooks deep into North Korean society

Despite the leadership’s unflagging efforts to block
the perceived “anti-socialist elements” of South Korean media content and root out its growing domestic viewership, interest only continues to grow, say sources hailing from across North Korea. 

Of particular concern to the regime is the fact that cadres
in the leadership class enjoy the dramas and are secretly contributing to the
expanding viewership. Not only do the cadres loosely enforce the regulations
against viewing the dramas, they are directly involved in the production and
transportation of the banned media. In relation to this, South Korea’s National
Intelligence Service reported that 10 cadres were found guilty of watching the
dramas in 2014 and subsequently executed.

Both residents and cadres alike have developed
a strong affection for the dramas, which has led to them develop a strong
interest in South Korean society, often emulating many of the practices and behaviors showcased in its cultural programming. This can include mimicking speech
patterns, fashion, and hairstyles of their favorite actors and actresses from just below the border.

For example, said a source in North Hamgyong Province, ” it costs about KPW 1000 to get a standard haircut, but to get it styled like a particular actor from a South Korean drama costs about KPW 6000.” 

He added, “Even though it is a bit on the pricey side, lots of people are lining up to get it done. Those who don’t pay up tend to look a bit homely!”

A source in Ryanggang Province agreed, also noting that the number of eager customers asking tailors to alter their clothes
to “look just like something they have seen by such and such [South Korean]
actor,” is also steadily on the rise.

The effects go beyond appearance, too. “After watching movie and drama scenes of actors having a great time drinking alcohol in pojangmacha [brightly colored tents with food and drink service], the residents have started coming out in the dark of night to eat and drink near street stalls,” the Ryanggang-based source explained.

According to a source in South Pyongan Province, dramas and movies from the South have been popular among residents since around the turn of the century but, more recently, the media is reaching remote and backwater regions of the country. “In the past, residents would watch secretly by themselves,” she said, “but now they watch in groups with neighbors because they are less concerned, as it is relatively unlikely, for such behavior to be reported.”

The authorities growing willingness to
secretly allow or be involved in the process is the main driver for the
expansion of Korean wave media inside North Korea. Cadres participate directly
and indirectly in this process by taking bribes or selling discs loaded with
contraband media and taking in huge profits. Despite harsh crackdowns, street
vendors continue also sell discs loaded with illicit material to no shortage of eager customers.

After learning that it is a sure
path to profit, even college students have gotten in on the game of selling
smuggled media content. More importantly, residents who view the materials share
information about them through the markets, discussing which shows and movies
are currently popular, describing the content, and recommending their
personal favorites to others. Mostly, this information gets passed along by word of
mouth through the market merchants.

“When the crackdowns intensify, things slow
down a bit. But outside of these temporary periods, consumers can purchase discs and even used clothes from South Korea. Many products are marked as being made in China countries in Southeast Asia on the packaging or label, but they are
actually from South Korea,” said the Ryanggang source.

As “Hallyu,” or “Korean Wave” continues to proliferate
inside the North, the social areas that it influences also continue to grow in
number and scale. Residents who watch dramas naturally become interested in the
products they see. In turn, cadres and donju [nouveau riche] acquire and smuggle
South Korean products through China for the purpose of selling them or using
them themselves. Currently, sources within the country say, South Korean products have become popular wedding
gifts; some consumers even seek out South
Korean products when they go out shopping for everyday goods.  

“Some affluent donju purchase cameras,
bikes, and notebooks for their kids that were all made in South Korea. Normal
residents have also caught a taste for South Korean products. One example is
the Chocopie [a small chocolate and marshmallow cake] which became popular
after coming through the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Now, the residents munch
on sausages and snacks from South Korea, calling them ‘interesting and
delicious’ in between bites,” said the source in South Pyongan Province.

In this manner, the proliferation of media and goods from below the border has changed the daily life of the residents.
Additionally, as the residents compare South Korean and North Korean society,
the number of residents who have come to see Kim Jong Un’s reign as
problematic has multiplied.   

“Compared to the drab and dull idolization films made here in North Korea,
South Korean media gives us a steady stream of new and diverse things and
ideas. As we see the equality between men and women portrayed in the film, the
heavily patriarchal aspects of our society have begun to waver, with the men
pitching in to help out with the household chores,” t
he source from North Pyongan Province said.

The source continued, “Children who have
been following their parents lead by secretly watching the South Korean films
are having an easier time accepting the cultural concepts introduced. There
have even been linguistic changes. Instead of referring to their father using
the traditional ‘Abeoji [father],’ kids have started saying, ‘Abba [daddy].’

Added the source in Ryanggang Province, “When
first watching South Korean media, many residents feel repulsed by the vulgar
aspects of the culture. However, many have become interested by the natural way
that the South Koreans behave. They have started asking themselves, ‘What do I
really want to do with my life?’ ‘What can I really do here in North Korea?’
This form of skepticism about the limits of North Korean life is on the rise.”   

Accordingly, Kim Jong Un has interpreted
the continued expansion of South Korean media to be a serious threat, therefore ordering strong crackdowns and punishments and urging units surveillance
units to double down on their duties. But this has failed to bring about the
desired impact.

“These days, the surveillance operatives
close their eyes to the offense of watching contraband media in return for a
bribe. The censorship units are also forced to mooch off the markets in order
to survive. In this way, the structure is changing,” the South Pyongan Province
source asserted.

“This is the era in which even the supreme
leader’s wife [Ri Sol Ju] wears expensive necklaces and short skirts! Residents
look at that and sarcastically quip “Well if you can go around like that, I
guess that stuff [‘capitalist styles’] isn’t regulated anymore!”   

In fact, North Korea experts generally
agree that the spread of the Korean Wave in North Korea can help to change
minds, but because of North Korea’s layered systems of political control, it
will be difficult for this change to spill over into resistance behaviors or
collective action. This is why, experts posit, developing content that inspires
the residents to pursue democratic ideals is the best method of preparation.

“If we truly want to properly change a
regime that pays no heed when its neighbors loudly protest against its nuclear
tests, we need to install a consciousness of democracy among the residents. It
is only when the residents awaken to the notion of democratization that regime
change will be possible, hence the need to be constantly pumping information
inside North Korea,” Sogang University Professor Kim Yeong Su told Daily

“Just like the loudspeaker broadcasts to
North Korea were resumed [targeting soldiers on the other size of the DMZ],
radio broadcasts into the North need to be strengthened so that we can expose
the weaknesses of Kim’s regime. We can use the resident’s newfound openness to
the ideas contained in the dramas to introduce more information via the radio.
This synergy between platforms should produce profound results.”

A senior defector, who spoke to
Daily NK on condition of anonymity, also weighed in, stating, “It has been 10 years since cadres have
started to enjoy watching South Korean dramas. However, it would be difficult
to say that their fundamental way of thinking has been radically changed. There
is a need to understand the mindsets of ordinary residents and cadres, and then
to develop and transmit content that gives them an understanding of the
principles of democracy.”

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