Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week’s question is:
Do North Koreans listen to K-pop? Which K-pop stars are popular or well-known to North Koreans?
I have heard that there is a growing interest in K-pop idol groups such as Girls’ Generation in North Korea recently. However, there was little interest in such K-pop idol groups as prior 2012. K-pop idol groups look stunningly glamorous and beautiful. They’re often featured in luxurious video clips, as well. But I personally think that North Koreans are very sentimental people. So, they pay more attention to the lyrics and voice of singers. They think the words of songs and the voice of singers are far more important than the appearances of singers.
Also, North Koreans were born and raised in a very patriarchal society. K-pop idol groups who are still teenagers are clad in skimpy clothes and North Koreans find this socially unacceptable. In North Korea, people who can afford to watch video clips from South Korea and other countries are the ones with money. Hence, it is mostly adults who can afford to consume K-pop culture. Teenagers aren’t likely to have enough money to consume whatever they’d like unless their parents are affluent, high-ranking officials.
When watching the same South Korean dramas or movies, adults and teenagers react to the scenes differently.
Grownups like scenes such as when the male character donates his corneas to the female lead, as well as when the two of them get married right before the death of the female lead. If you have watched this K-drama, you probably know which scenes I’m talking about.
Teenagers pay more attention to the amusement park, Seoul’s Lotte World, featured in the drama. They are far more interested in the fashion style of the main characters – jeans and short skirts, etc.
When it came to the background music of this K-drama, grown-ups like “Kal-muri,” sung by the famous trot singer Na Hoon-a. Teenagers like the song “Bogoshipda (I Miss You)” by Kim Bum-soo. It doesn’t mean that teenagers don’t like the trot song “Kal-muri,” but they prefer the latter.
Adults often criticize the miniskirts and skimpy clothes worn by South Koreans in those dramas. Still, they are crazy about those South Korean dramas because they like the story lines so much
The grown-ups, though, don’t like “Bogoshipda” at all. They say it sounds like a poem, not a song. Also, they never liked the fashions of people in South Korean dramas. Adults often criticize the miniskirts and skimpy clothes worn by South Koreans in those dramas. Still, they are crazy about those South Korean dramas because they like the story lines so much.
North Korean dramas and movies are all about making sacrifices for the leader. Even if the main character dies in the movie, they died for our leader. Yet in South Korean dramas, people make sacrifices for someone they loved, which was fresh and shocking to most North Koreans. Likewise, South Korean dramas are more realistic and down-to-earth. Therefore, grownups love watching South Korean dramas even though they don’t like the skimpy clothes worn by South Koreans! Teenagers and children love the story lines, too. But they also love copying the accent of Seoulites, as spoken in K-dramas.
For instance, bathroom is weesangshil in North Korean but hwajangshil in South Korean. Due to the popularity of South Korean dramas, the young generation of North Koreans has begun to use the South Korean term. They adopted new words and new culture from South Korea more quickly than the adults. It is possible that K-pop idol groups may have gotten bigger and more popular in the North by now.
But up until 2012, people didn’t feel comfortable about any songs that sounded far different from trot songs and the singers clad in skimpy clothes. Even when they listened to South Korean songs, they preferred old songs to new hit songs of idol groups. In 2012, South Korean songs, which were most popular to North Koreans included old Kpop such as “Friend,” “Private’s Letter” and “For Love.” Later on, when the South Korean drama called Sweet 18 became popular in the North, South Korean singer Chang Nara, who sang on the soundtrack, attracted much attention from North Korean viewers.
I’m not sure how the K-pop scenes have changed since I left North Korea. But I can tell you that those singers and their songs were popular to North Koreans while I was there. In my case, my favorite K-pop song was “Like Being Shot by a Bullet” sung by Baek Ji-young. But since my mom didn’t like that song, I couldn’t sing it at home. One certain thing is that the preference of young generation in North Korea is very wide and diverse. Hence, there is big possibility that K-pop idol singers may have gotten much popular by now. You never know, North Korea’s teenagers might be dancing to EXID’s “Up & Down” at this very moment I’m writing this.
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Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld