Let’s release Video tapes in North Korea as U.S.S.R

[imText1]The ‘Korean wave’, a craze for all things Korean which is engulfing entire East Asia, has finally reached North Korea as well. Recent visitors of the North confirm that over the last few years South Korean fashion, pop music and, above all, TV serials became immensely popular in North Korea.

Recently I was talking to a Westerner who lived in Pyongyang for quite a long time. Describing recent changes, he said: “Once upon the time, one had to come back from an overseas trip with a trunkload of cigarettes. Now my North Korean colleagues want me to bring movies, especially tapes of South Korean TV dramas”. Indeed, North Korea is in the middle of a video revolution which is likely to have a deep impact on its future. The cheap used VCRs and video tapes are smuggled across the border with China. The government is not happy, but cannot do much: spread of video is difficult to control, since tapes are so much easier to copy than printed material.

For somebody with a Soviet experience, this is important news. Why did the Soviet-style socialism collapse? In the final count, this was due to its innate economic inefficiency. State is a bad entrepreneur, and the entire history of the 20th century testifies to this. The outcome of competition between two Germanys, two Koreas and, finally, between the USSR and USA support this conclusion.

However, economic problems alone could not bring the system down. Had not the people of the Communist countries learned about these problems, the state socialism would probably last much longer.

But by the 1970s the Soviet people knew that the people of the capitalist countries are much better off than the populace of the communist world, and that the gap was growing once this was widely realized, the fate of the state socialism was sealed. But how could people learn such things? Largely through ‘cultural products’ of various kinds.

In the USSR and other countries of the once Communist Eastern Europe, uncensored information was largely provided by a short-wave radio broadcast. The USSR was a more liberal place than North Korea, so Soviet citizens could easily buy radio sets in shops. As far as I know, Moscow never considered the ban on short-wave radio sets in peacetime – perhaps, because in a vast country such a measure would cut from the news a large part of population. The government occasionally resorted to jamming, but it was not always efficient, since it could work only around major cities.

But there was one problem. The Soviet people saw the Russian-language broadcast as foreign propaganda tools (and this was indeed the case). Thus, they seldom took it at face value. They knew that their propaganda was lying and exaggerating, and they expected the same from the foreign propaganda broadcast.

Movies and books were an entirely different matter. The Soviet regime was far more liberal than its North Korean copy, hence the foreign (largely American) movies were frequently shown in the Soviet theaters. Of course, the Soviet officials selected only the movies which gave a critical picture of the modern Western life. But even in such movies one could easily see the degree of prosperity and freedoms enjoyed by the common people in the West. It was clear that owning a car was usual, that houses were spacious, and that even person of humble social standing had some chances to win a court case against a wealthy and powerful opponent.

Until recently, it seemed impossible that something similar would ever happen in the North. But over the last few hears everything changed dramatically.

As many other great social changes, this one began from a minor technological revolution. The DVD players have been around for quite a while, but around 2001 their prices went down dramatically. North East China was no exception. The local Chinese households began to purchase new DVD players, and this made their old VCRs obsolete. The Chinese market was flooded with cheap used VCRs which could be sold for $10 or $20. Many of these machines were bought by smugglers who transport the goods across the porous border between Korea and China. They were re-sold with huge premium, but still cost some $30 to $40. This made VCR affordable for a large number of North Korean households.

Against dull background of the official arts, the VCRs provided good entertainment. Needless to say, people do not buy these expensive machines to watch ‘Star of Korea’, a lengthy biopic about the youth of the Great Leader! Since the only major producer of Korean language shows is South Korea, it is only natural that most programs come from Seoul via China. The South Korean soaps are a major hit. Young North Koreans enthusiastically imitate the fashion and idiom they see in South Korean movies. And this does not bode well for the regime’s future.

Of course, the movie makers did not deliberately pursue any political goals, and their movies are usual melodramatic stories of love, family relations and escapist adventure. They are not even produced with North Korean audience in mind. But the movies reflect the life of South Korea, and this image is vastly different from what the official North Korean media says.

I do not think that the North Koreans take what they see in the movies at face value. They know that their movies grossly exaggerate the living standards in their county, so they expect the movie-makers from other countries, including South Korea, to do the same. Thus, they hardly believe that in South everybody can eat meat daily or that every Seoul household has a car. Such an improbable affluence is still beyond their wildest dreams. But there are things which cannot be faked – like, say, Seoul cityscape, dotted with high-rise buildings and impressive bridges. It is gradually dawning on the North Koreans that South is not exactly the land of hunger and destitution depicted by their propaganda.

It became cool to look Southern and behave like Southerners do. In this regard, the North Koreans remind me of the Soviet people in the 1970s who also were eager to imitate the West as depicted in movies. In the USSR this was a sign of things to come. Why should North Korea be different?

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