Following a peculiar three-week absence fuelling speculation over his health, Kim Jong-un has finally made a return to the front pages, this time publicly attacking his neighbours’ music taste.
The dictator is now firing off at a supposed enemy of the North Korean state: K-pop.
As one of South Korea’s biggest cultural exports, K-pop features futuristic dance beats and high-pitched vocals, distributed primarily via social media platforms like TikTok. The new genre’s use of bright colours, extravagant costumes and co-ordinated group performances have made it a hit South Korea and abroad with a several dance crazes going global.
Viewed by many as a lighthearted source of optimism, K-pop has now earned itself a noise complaint from next door.
The North Korean leader has described the cultural phenomenon as a “vicious cancer” plaguing culture. Echoing sentiments of Christian billboards in 1970s America, Kim Jong-un believes the genre of music is corrupting his country’s youth, influencing their “attire, hairstyles, speeches and behaviours”.
The world got a taste after South Korean artist PSY strongarmed his way onto commercial radio across the planet in 2012. The dance hit “Gangnam Style” was Youtube’s first ever video to hit a billion views, opening the floodgates for the tidal wave of new wave Korean music to come.
Now, stars such as BTS, SuperM, H.O.T., BoA, SUPER JUNIOR and KARA to name a few are superstars, with the genre earning a seven-part series to explain exactly how the cultural explosion took off.
North Korean media has long decried the influence of “anti-socialist” culture bleeding into its shut-off society, following new laws introduced in December 2020 for anyone watching or possessing South Korean entertainment. The new legislation could see offenders serve anywhere between five and 15 years of hard labour.
Global internet is banned by default, with official government broadcasts the only media made available on local TV and radio. The authoritarian nation also employs disciplinary officers to roam the streets and correct men with long hair and women with revealing or tight clothing.
North Korean defector Jung Gwang-il, who runs a music network smuggling K-pop across the border, says the dictatorship is losing his grip over the youth, presenting a mounting problem for the Kim dynasty pushing to extend its rule of law.
The three-generation lineage, beginning with Kim Il-sung in 1948, has ruled the Asian nation for 73 years after establishing a communist state.
Kim has publicly feared for the “ideological and mental state” of the next generation, admitting the unchecked distribution of foreign culture could “crumble like a damp wall”.
“Young North Koreans think they owe nothing to Kim Jong-un,” Jung Gwang-il told the New York Times.
“He must reassert his ideological control on the young if he doesn’t want to lose the foundation for the future of his family’s dynastic rule.”
Jung’s network, No Chain, specialises in the risky business of smuggling USB drives into North Korea. The high-tier contraband containing everything from James Bond movies to South Korean soap operas is snuck in via human smugglers, helium balloons and helicopter drones.
The reinforced push against South Korean influence means anybody distributing content to North Koreans faces the death sentence if caught. It is now completely illegal to even “speak, write or sing in South Korean style” once inside the country.
“To Kim Jong-un, the cultural invasion from South Korea has gone beyond a tolerable level,” said Jiro Ishimaru, a chief editor of Asia Press International.
“If this is left unchecked, he fears that his people might start considering the South an alternative Korea to replace the North.”
According to North Korean documents obtained by Asia Press, citizens’ electronic devices and notebooks are being regularly searched by authorities for traces of South Korean culture. Something as simple as a commonly-used phrase south of the border can land people in serious trouble, with anyone “imitating the puppet accent” facing expulsion from North Korean cities.
Kim Jong-un has previously referred to language used by South Korean television dramas as “perverted” after North Korean women began referring to their dates as “oppa” (honey) as opposed to the dictatorship’s preferred “comrade”.
An advocate of purity, Kim Jong-un has been accused of spending $3.4 million on lingerie for his reported “Pleasure Squad”. In an interview with the International Business Times, North Korean investigator Toshimitsu Shigemura claimed authorities paid off families $4000 to recruit their daughters as dancers, singers and maids for senior government officials.
“The women who entertained Kim’s father knew many secrets and they have now been ordered to promise not to reveal any information before being sent back to their hometowns,” Mr Shigemura, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, said.