A few months ago, the New York Times reported that North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, had called K-pop a ‘vicious cancer.’ Rather than see this pronouncement as an exceptional step taken by a totalitarian regime, one can think of this as yet another expression of an ongoing struggle to control information entering North Korea. In this case, the threat comes in the form of South Korean soft power such as Korean ‘dramas’ and Music Videos.
Broadly speaking, however, North Korea is not the only country in Asia that has banned popular culture for political purposes. South Korea and Japan have had contentious relations since the Japan colonized the peninsula between 1910-1945. Even after diplomatic normalization in 1965, South Korea-Japan relations have been strained by perennial demands that Japan acknowledge, and pay reparations to, the South Korean women it recruited as sex slaves, also known as “Comfort Women.” For these reasons, forms of Japanese popular culture were banned in South Korea until 1998, and South Koreans who enjoyed forms of Japanese pop culture did so at great personal risk. Although popular culture was banned less out of fear of its corrupting influence and more as a rejection of Japan based on historic enmity, the message was the same: culture is powerful, and it needs to be kept in check.
More recently, China responded to the South Korean decision to instill THAAD missiles in 2016 by banning Korean content from online streaming services, preventing Korean celebrities from appearing on television, and cancelling live concerts. And while research from 2019 points to a sustained interest in Korean popular culture amongst Chinese teens, it also shows that these same teens expect Chinese popular culture to eclipse Korean offerings in the coming years. As Chinese popular demonstrations against Korean products show, political tensions can quickly lead to censorship of culture in different forms.
Significantly, North Korea’s ban on South Korean media is reciprocated: the South Korea’s national security law makes it illegal for South Koreans to access North Korean websites and enforces a ban on most published North Korean materials. The restrictive National Security Law was put in place for fears that reactionary elements might find North Korea’s messaging attractive and would destabilize South Korea’s democracy. The only location that carries published North Korean materials is South Korea’s Central Library in Kangnam on the fifth-floor reading room, where one assumes that the registration system allows for close monitoring of visitors. Unauthorized access of North Korean culture in its various forms carries fines and jail sentences.
Why the fear? What is “culture,” and what does it do? Cultural critic, novelist, and writer Raymond Williams traced the etymology of the word to show how it came to represent the thoughts, feelings, and essence of people bound by geographical location, time, and language. By this logic, ‘culture’ is a vehicle for all sorts of ideas and feelings – and by the same token, it can act as a Trojan Horse that, once released, can exert influence that is impossible to control.
The results of an exposure to ‘culture’ can be felt in the United States. For example, the viral spread of K-pop has led to a dramatic increase in interest among American youth to learn the Korean language. A summer program that I lead, the Korean Language Village, is an example of this: this immersion program for ages 8-18 has seen such dramatic increases in enrollments that summer registration fills almost a year in advance. The children who come to this program are not, for the most part, heritage learners, but American youth from all 50 states and even from overseas. They come from diverse backgrounds, religions, and home cultures. What they share is an interest in “Korean culture,” typically sparked by K-pop, an interest that grows into a passion for learning Korean and results in a life-long interest in the Korean peninsula and in Asia more generally.
From the North Korean perspective, the fear of South Korean popular culture seems well-placed. Korean dramas and K-pop bands offer visions of cosmopolitan chic, rags-to-riches fantasies, cross-class romance, gender-bending narratives, and stories about popular uprising. K-pop fans are also highly organized and highly vocal: they disrupt political rallies, create and surveille communities, and cultivate solidarity. Scholars of fandom have known this for a long time: culture, particularly in its highly spreadable online format, is like a virus–its spread is unpredictable, exponential, and it can wreak systemic havoc of unimaginable proportions.
All of this bodes ill for the North Korean regime, for which control of information is critical for its stability. All four channels of North Korean TV offer a mix of educational and entertaining content curated with great care. North Korea’s music bands, such as the Moranbong Band and the Band of the State Affairs Commission, create a kind of audial and visual experience that is morally and politically wholesome. North Korean citizens engage in regular self-criticism sessions to make sure that internal musings are articulated publicly. This is to say that North Korea invests huge resources in creating its own culture and making sure it is “read” in one way, and one way only.
Ultimately, however, language, music, and gestures cannot be made to mean one thing, and their interpretation, even in a place like North Korea, cannot be fully controlled. K-pop may trickle in, but whether it will destabilize the North Korean regime is impossible to say. North Koreans will consume their own culture, but they may do so in unpredictable ways. If Kim Jung Un feels compelled to crack down on South Korean soft power, surely this means that seamless control of information, and the task of controlling meaning, remains, always, an elusive goal.
Dr. Dafna Zur is Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages at Stanford University. She is also the Dean of the Korean Language Village, a summer immersion program for children ages 8-18.
This research was conducted with the generous support of the Korean Foundation and the NextGen Program.
Photo from Only Ũ’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.