By Jenna Gibson
Tensions have been high on the Korean Peninsula over the past few weeks after a mine blast that maimed two South Korean soldiers set off a series of escalations from both sides of the DMZ. One of the moves from Seoul was restarting anti-North Korean broadcasts for the first time in 11 years.
The broadcasts avoid criticizing the North Korean government directly – instead, the key point has been “subtlety.” So, hidden among news reports and information about Kim Jong Un’s health conditions, the broadcasts contained some unusual content – pop music.
The broadcast soundtrack includes songs like IU’s “Heart,” Girls’ Generation’s “Tell Me Your Wish,” and Big Bang’s “Bang Bang Bang” – a not-so-subtle message for the North Korean soldiers hearing the tunes.
In response, North Korea began blaring its own propaganda, mainly in an attempt to drown out the messages coming from the South. The regime then declared a semi-state of war amid escalating tensions on the border, and the broadcasts were apparently a “key sticking point” in high-level talks over the weekend.
On the surface, it seems like a bit of an overreaction to go to war over ballads and bubble gum pop. But for such a closed-off regime, any information illicitly making its way into North Korea from outside is a potential threat.
Earlier this year Wired profiled a high-level defector Kang Chol-hwan who has chosen to fight back against the regime by smuggling thousands of USBs filled with movies, TV shows and music into North Korea every year. For Kang, the USBs are like the red pill from The Matrix – they show a reality that most North Koreans could never begin to imagine.
One of the smugglers who works with Kang puts it more bluntly – “What I do is what Kim Jong-un fears most.”
And he might not be far off the mark.
According to a 2012 study from Intermedia based on a survey of North Korean defectors, more and more North Koreans have access to forms of foreign media – and their views actually have changed because of it. “One of this study’s key findings – that a strong relationship exists between outside media exposure and positive perceptions of the outside world – is clear evidence that the influx of outside media is contributing to a more aware North Korean citizenry.”
Dramas in particular were cited as having an effect on North Korean viewers – one that the Kim regime would certainly want to block. According to one defector interviewed for the study, “I think the South Korean dramas are realistic. North Korea only shows beautiful images. But in the South Korean dramas there is fighting and I think that is realistic. There is also poverty, but in North Korea they only show you good things, so it does not seem real.”
So when South Korea blasts information across the DMZ, even when that information includes some dubstep, it’s no wonder the North gets uneasy.
According to a South Korean military spokesperson, the reason North Korea is so obsessed with stopping the broadcasts is that they lower the morale of the soldiers stationed on the border. That may be why they included songs with lyrics like “Tell me your wish! Aren’t you tired of the boring days? Have you become buried by your ordinary life? Now stop and wake up.” (Tell Me Your Wish)
On Monday, the two countries reached an agreement to de-escalate the situation on the border, so the broadcasts will stop for now. But in future interactions with the reclusive North, the world would do well not to underestimate the power of K-pop.
Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Dominic Alvez’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.