Young People Surfing the Korean Wave

The ‘Korean Wave’ has been big in Asia for some years, and has recently made inroads as far away as Europe, too. Naturally, North Korea is not free of this influence. Since the early 2000s, this cultural movement has extended to every corner of the nation bar the remotest rural communities and the minds of senior citizens.

For example, two dramas that only recently aired in South Korea, ‘Smile Dong-hae’ (KBS) and ‘Midas’ (SBS), have already come to the attention of North Koreans. Many young people are avid followers, and many feel they must wear skinny jeans and high heels even when daily necessities are hard to come by.

In an effort to gauge the extent to which this ‘Korean Wave’ is really influencing North Korea today, the Daily NK interviewed North Korean residents in the border areas.

Even in the early 2000s, South Korean dramas were only popular in big cities or among Chinese-Koreans, North Koreans all agree. Now, however, almost all are obsessed with South Korean products.

Kim Eun Hye, a woman in her forties living in Pyongsung, has been watching South Korean dramas for ten years. According to her, “Young people, especially those who are pretty up-to-date, watch Korean dramas despite government restrictions. The first time I watched any was when I saw ‘Stairs from Heaven’ (2003) and ‘Scent of a Man’ (2003) at my in-laws in 2005. I’ve watched quite a few more since then.”

“I’m into Hyun Bin and Kwon Sang Woo these days,” Kim went on. “I’ve watched their dramas about 10 times. I know Hyun Bin, Kwon Sang Woo, Lee Bum Soo, Ko Hyun Jung, Ha Ji Won, Choi Yeo Jin, Lim Hyun Sik, Lee Soon Jae and so on. I think Lim Hyun Sik really understands the characters he plays.”

Keeping up with South Korean dramas has become easier than it once was, too. Lee Hye Sook, a woman in her thirties from a city in North Hamkyung Province commented, “I recently watched ‘Smile Dong-hye’ and ‘Midas’.”

It is notable that ‘Smile Dong-hye’ was still being aired in South Korea at the time of Lee’s interview, illustrating the speed with which new products get onto the market in parts of the North.

In rural areas it is not so easy, of course, but where there is a will, there seems to be a way. One farmer from a collective farm in Deokcheon, South Pyongan Province explained, “I watched a South Korean drama once when an acquaintance brought it in from outside the country. It’s difficult to get to watch those tapes in the countryside, but people in the know do find ways to obtain video tapes or CDs of South Korean materials or translated foreign materials”

It’s not just about dramas, either; South Korean pop music is apparently spreading quickly as well. According to Kim Sun Hwa, a worker at Nampo Steel Mill, said, “College students in Pyongyang sometimes put on South Korean music with the lyrics erased and dance to it by the train station.” Lee Hye Sook agreed, saying with some amusement, “Young people want to dance, so they dance to lyric-less songs.” The reason being that without lyrics the Young Red Guards cannot legitimately stop the activity.

This trend is, of course, affecting language, too. “Daeng-dae-baji” and “Jjing-baji” are relatively new words referring to skinny jeans, for example. Using the terms, Kim Eun Hye said, “Fur coats and skinny jeans are in style, and dresses are popular in Pyongyang, where things catch on quickly. Women put their hair down and wear short skirts, while men push up their hair like Hyun Bin, or even dye it.”

The ‘Korean Wave’ first came to North Korea, much like everything else, from China. In cities like Yanji, Dandong and Shenyang, where many Koreans reside, internet cafes have satellite TV, so many young Chinese-Koreans go there to watch South Korean TV. Illegal recordings of South Korean TV are then made into CD and DVDs, which are sold to North Korean smugglers.

This was how Kim Sun Hwa started watching South Korean things, she says, “I first experienced watching South Korean TV from an acquaintance who crosses the Chinese border often, and since then, I have even bought a DVD and VCD player from China.”

“People go on business trips outside North Korea often, and they bring in the stuff; the offspring of these traders usually spread it around.” Lee Hye Sook agreed.

Meanwhile, with the South Korean media growing increasingly widespread, the means of access has changed, too. In the early 2000s, tweaking a TV antenna to gain access to Chinese-Korean TV or using a Chinese DVD player was the only way to watch South Korean material. However, in 2005 DVD players became legal, and computers started being used to watch them, too.

Recently, USB memory (known to North Koreans as ‘memory’) has also become widespread, helping people avoid confiscation. Kim Eun Hye said, “My son used to bring home CDs, but now he brings them on memory. The security forces can’t find the memory as easily as they could the CDs. That said; if you get caught you get kicked out of town, so he normally goes over to his friend’s house to watch them on his laptop.”

Park Young Min, a trade worker, said, “These days, young people value South Korean songs and movies over food, so they often have electronic goods like MP3 players; the electronic dictionary ‘Nurian’ is also popular for learning Chinese.”

Some get access to South Korean materials through satellite TV or the short wave radio from South Korea, too. According to Kim Sun Hwa, “I listened to Radio Free Asia in North Korea once.” Kim Eun Hye also said, “You can get 36 radio channels on a small South Korean radio with a satellite antenna.”

Naturally, the question of electricity is a key one to address. Batteries are crucial, North Koreans explain, since very little electricity is available and that which is generated is on offer at quite unhelpful hours of the night, too. Lee Young Sil explained, “When electricity is available we charge batteries or car batteries, then we can later use it for watching TV and making recordings.”

Of course, the ‘Korean Wave’ is being led by the young generation. Kim Sun Hwa commented, “Maybe because most students in Pyongyang have seen South Korean TV, they seem to want to dance and hang out.” Lee Hye Sook also said, “Young people wear skinny jeans a lot these days. They don’t wear blue jeans since they are banned, but they care a lot about their hair and appearance.”

When Lee buys her daughter ordinary clothes, she says the girl says they are too “old-fashioned.” Lee said, “Children want to wear tight-fitting clothes like in the South, and they even wear high heels. Young men often wear clothes with English words on them. It’s harmless if they wear them without knowing the meaning of the word, but if they know then they become a target.”

The spread of South Korean materials and culture naturally provides a cultural and economic point of comparison for North Koreans, but it is hard to say whether this phenomenon can inspire civil unrest.

Kang Dong Wan of Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), the author of ‘The Korean Wave Shakes North Korea’ commented, “From watching South Korean dramas, the North Koreans learn of the lies of the North Korean government and simultaneously develop the desire to live in a more advanced society like the South. While it is hard to imagine that an interest in South Korean culture could cause protests against the North Korean system, once some discontent against the system has built up, the desire not to conform might catalyze a revolution.”

However, some point out that to North Koreans, the ‘make-believe’ world of South Korean dramas may not appear realistic and believable enough.

Lee Hye Sook said, “Some movies are OK, but gangster movies where people fight in dark alleys and kill each other are dumb. South Korean people seem to go through too many lovers, too; meeting this person, then meeting that person. Because all North Korean movies are for education purposes, I get confused as to whether the South Korean movies are recommending that kind of love life!”

That said, Lee added. “Until now, we were told that South Korea is poor and hard to survive in, but from the movies, it appears that it does have moral values and allows a comfortable life style.”

On this, Kang of KINU noted, “Refugees who have seen South Korean TV come with the dream that they will become rich in South Korea. But the more important point is that access to such materials provides the North Korean people with the opportunity to rethink South Korean society.”

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