Before Korea was divided into two separate autonomous states, it was dominated by colonialism that led to the percolation of cultural influences from imperialists like Japan and China. Since the end of both WWII and Japanese imperialism, the split of Korea has resulted in a juxtaposition between the North—which continues to be very opposed to outside cultural influences by enforcing isolationism upon its people—and the South which has embraced cultural influences from around the world while translating them into trend-setting media. Through exporting intangible pop culture including their famed incarnation of pop music (KPOP), the idea of professional video gaming, a deluge of internet phenomena, and the awesomely violent Korean film industry, South Korea has become the largest exporter of pop culture in the world.
South Korea consumes and produces a copious amount of pop culture, their government actively strives to disseminate Korean media as a soft power play to carve out their place on the world stage and forge the flow of money through the capitalist country. And it has worked. When the Korean peninsula fractured after years of cultural suppression and censorship, the South swiftly became a pop culture juggernaut.
Among the most popular cultural exports, South Korea adopted the American model of pop music and refined it into a wildly popular style known worldwide as KPOP, which radiates with the bubblegum eccentricity of artists such as f(x). In addition, the concept of han—or deep seated feelings of injustice, oppression, and the desire for revenge said to be inherent to all Koreans—has informed South Korean films like OldBoy. Other emotions have been explored in TV dramas, which are extremely popular in the South of the peninsula and abroad. The country has also popularized online activities such as broadcast eating, and video gaming has become a reputable and lucrative profession in the highly capitalist consumer culture, worthy of sponsorship and fame. Finally, South Korea is home to Samsung, one of the top technology companies bringing all this media to you on your smart phones and TVs.
But the South isn’t the only one with an interest in pop culture. The North simply dictates—as they do with nearly every aspect of North Korean life—who gets to enjoy such luxuries. As copies of films on DVDs and flash drives containing external media are smuggled into the country from China, South Korea, and even North Korean defectors, the content is starting to entertain, subtly educate, and even facilitate the liberation of the intellectually starved people. While their citizens literally and figuratively starve, the ruling Kim dynasty has been able to enjoy the cultural phenomena of the outside world for years, in perverse ways that culminate in strange obsessions and domineering behavior towards both popular media and culture.
To understand the context of the way pop culture interacts—or doesn’t—within the hermit kingdom, we need to examine the history of North Korean control over media that began with the current North Korean dictator’s grandfather, eternal Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung.
After the North Korean Revolution and the fracture of the Korean Peninsula, when South Korea started the long process of embracing, importing, and synthesizing Western influenced media, autocrat Kim Il-sung began a campaign to overhaul the entirety of North Korean culture with a completely state sanctioned approach to music, film, and just about everything else that would influence not just North Koreans themselves, but the way his citizens viewed the countries of the world outside the reclusive state. The despot crafted a cult-of-personality around himself in which he was the end-all be-all of the intensely collective communist society, unfailingly rejecting external cultural influences to this day. The isolationism became dependent upon the concept of juche, or the dogma of self-reliance.
The way the dictator controlled art, music, and film would go on to shape the way the isolated country views pop culture today. Beginning with anthems of propaganda, music in North Korean is still entirely designed around the military state and expressing loyalty to the Kim regime. Another example are the operas penned by the unassailable dictator with which Kim Il-sung would create propaganda films such as Sea of Blood to craft the collective consciousness of his secluded nation. The prohibition of pop culture would, in a curious, paradoxical way, go on to influence future generations of the Kim family in their interest in not only film, but popular culture in general.
Unlike his father, who viewed movies as simply an agent of control, Kim Jong-il was enamored with film—even the movies that came from the North Korean state’s most perennial adversaries: Hollywood in the United States as well as the booming industry coming out of South Korea. Just before fully beginning his reign as successor to his father, Kim Jong-il had an obsession with South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok and his estranged ex-wife, actress Choi Eun-hee. The soon-to-be tyrant’s fixation was so intense that he had the couple kidnapped and forced them to make films for the regime in the North. They made three movies together while they were in custody of the government, one of which was their own version of Godzilla (Pulgasari), the classic from North Korea’s third most loathed foe, Japan.
The couple’s relationship and kidnapping is documented in the film The Lovers and the Despot. At the time of their capture, Sang-ok was at a low point in his filmmaking career, and received generous funding to make movies that he would have never been able to get outside of North Korea. Some met this with skepticism, suggesting the director could have willingly traveled to the communist dictatorship to gain funding for making movies. But nevertheless Choi Eun-hee was kidnapped and brought to the totalitarian regime against her will to star in the films the united couple would make together.
The third descendant in the Kim Dynasty, Kim Jong-un, would carry on his father’s pop culture fascination with, among other things, professional basketball players and his courtship of eccentric NBA star Dennis Rodman. Despite having an extremely sheltered childhood, Jong-un expressed himself with an interest in pop culture. The future dictator of North Korea attended boarding school in Switzerland, had an affinity for playing games on his PlayStation, and reportedly listened to American pop acts including Michael Jackson and Madonna. He was also rumored to have been caught with a magazine of bondage pornography in his school bag, an unfounded, albeit unsurprising, detail that would consummate his dominant persona in the latest manifestation of the Kim family’s cult-of-personality. Students at the school said he had a love for Michael Jordan that would eventually translate into his odd relationship with Dennis Rodman.
The basketball star was repeatedly invited to North Korea to meet with the Great Leader. Both are known to be heavy drinkers, and they struck a gregarious friendship. Rodman checked into rehab shortly after his frequent visits to the most isolated country on earth. But before that, the “friends” set up a basketball game between former NBA players and the North Korean national team in which the latter bequeathed the aging NBA stars an embarrassing defeat. Rodman’s visits to the hermit state as well as his role in the first sports game played with American players on North Korean soil is portrayed in the documentary Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang.
These strange examples of interaction between North Korean dictators and pop culture icons could be seen as political posturing, but both reveal the Kim family’s interest in popular culture that is a peculiar result of years of isolationism originally cultivated by Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung. Fascinatingly, the South took their approach to pop culture in the complete opposite direction, becoming incredibly interested in all forms of cultural sensation by setting trends, nurturing pop culture that is highly antithetical to the North, and exporting their own media to the profit of the country as a whole.
Korea’s split, the disparities between the goals of their governments, and the desire of the succession of tyrannical North Korean dictators to keep control of their collective communist state gave way to polar approaches concerning the import and export of intangible popular culture that has continued to grow more bizarre and fascinating as the world globalizes, as pop culture becomes ubiquitous, and as the attempts to keep North Korea isolated become increasingly difficult. Now, the inevitable shift into a global society has pop culture from around the world seeping into the hermit kingdom. In the end, pop culture smuggled into the censored country may be the unexpected infiltrator that facilitates the liberation of the North Korean people and unifies the fragmented cultures.
Ryan Beitler is a journalist, fiction writer, vicious traveler, musician, and blogger. He has written for Paste Magazine, Addiction Now, OC Weekly, and his travel blog Our Little Blue Rock. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org