The ways in which affluent North Korean teenagers are turning in increasing numbers to the music and music videos of South Korean “idol” groups has been described in detail by an inside North Korean source.
The source explained in a recent phone interview, “Today’s teenagers really like modern South Korean pop music,” adding, “It is not just due to the singers’ appearance or singing ability; they are also engrossed in their really fantastic dancing.”
“Some even know the names of the singers in bands like Dong-bang-shin-gi and Girls’ Generation. Secretly passing the recorded videos of South Chosun singers between close friends, they copy the songs and even mimic their clothing and gestures,” he added.
A few of the young people are going even further; the source went on, “Tight pants and long hair is trendy now with some of these teenagers. Some guys are getting rid of their partings and covering their ears with their hair, while some girls wear tight pants when they go out on national holidays.”
The demographic in question, the source clarified, includes the top two grades of upper middle school (North Korea has no high schools) and those who have graduated but not entered military service, instead going directly into university. In age terms, it means late teens and early twenties.
However, this societal movement is restricted by class, location and affluence, the source also added, making it far from a sweeping phenomenon. “Obviously this trend is the sole preserve of the teenage children of high level cadres in Pyongyang, Nampo, Pyongsung, Wonsan and other big cities,” he explained. “It is the kind of thing that the children of average workers can’t even dream of doing.”
Getting hold of South Korean music videos is easy for the teenagers. Pirated CDs are freely available on the streets of China for less than $1 each, and DVD videos of concerts by popular singers can be picked up for less than $5. They are often the first thing people ask visitors to China to bring back with them.
The technology required to play the files is no more difficult to get hold of. The selling of memory cards and PMPs is against the rules, but, with a little negotiation and sufficient funds, they are obtainable in any big city market, for example Unification Street Market or Jungu Station Market in Pyongyang. For example, a 2G MP4 player made in China will set an affluent family back around $13, while a 4G model might sell for around $16.
Needless to say, older, more conservative North Koreans take a very dim view of those teenagers who are following the trend, calling it “crazy,” but those who are in the know can spot a fellow fan of the South Korean pop videos from a mile away.
“These days on national holidays, if you go out to Changgwang Street or the Rakwon Department Store, you can see a few of them,” the source said.
According to sources, National Security Agency agents and community watch guards covering student activities are waging a battle against these so-called “long-haired gangs”, imposing fines of 1,000 won (roughly $0.70) on those caught dressed inappropriately, or with hair that doesn’t meet the strict North Korean regulations.
However, the source added, “These kids are all the children of high level cadres, so the National Security Agency people or community watch guards cannot actually crack down on them without thought.”
“Every girl’s pants and every person’s body shape are different,” he also said, “so punishing them for reasons of tightness alone is not easy.”
Alongside the trend towards South Korean styles comes a trend towards South Korean forms of speech. According to the source, “These days, they use South Chosun lingo a lot, including turning ‘dongmu’ into ‘chingu’, ‘orabeoni’ into ‘oppa’… Especially, there are many cases of the affectionate whining sound ‘oppa’.”
In South Korean, “chingu” means “friend”, while “oppa” is an affectionate label young women use to call close male friends.
Naturally, the source appended, “Because if just anyone hears this, they can catch that they are South Korean words, so they use them only among themselves; when someone else comes along they immediately switch to Chosun ways of speaking.”