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Monday, May 12, 2014

North Korean Pop Culture

Morning rush hour traffic snarls in downtown Pyongyang......
First, before I go into this, I need to say I'm not a sympathizer of the North Korean regime and I'm aware of the atrocities and miserable human rights record of it. It's no joke.

But the contradiction between the North Korean 'official' line of "Paradise On Earth" and reality are embarrassingly visual just by viewing and listening to North Korea's own media and raise far more uncomfortable questions than the regime can explain or live down. So you don't ask questions. Who asks questions in North Korea?
That said, what I'm showcasing here is the regime manufactured pop culture of this strange country. It's one that is strangely fascinating to me because it is so far off the grid from the rest of the world, it's one that needs an illustration. There is nothing anywhere else in the world like it. (Even Cuba has loopholes.)

In most ways, North Korea is The Land That Pop Culture Forgot. Because in North Korea, the regime dictates what you have for fun, recreation, music, food and style. It must conform to "revolutionary" principles (or at least not be a threat to them.)

That kinda stifles things a bit in the pop culture development department.

First, it's hard to get a real look inside the country. You can't just arrive, check into your hotel and freely stroll around Pyongyang, meeting and talking with people, taking pictures and visiting the locals without a minder (a government official designated to guide you around to specific places and people only) Tourists are forbidden to stray beyond their hotel without one.

This isn't London, Sydney or Tokyo.

Americans in particular are viewed with suspicion in North Korea. It's been that way since the 1950s when America backed South Korea in the Korean War. A war that never actually ended (a truce was signed but never a formal peace treaty.) But there are always skirmishes along the De-Militarized Zone - a funny name for one of the most heavily armed places on earth, with a million soldiers on either side, waiting for the other side to blink. (And as long as there is a DMZ, the war is still on.)

Americans still aid the South Koreans, but in nowhere near the numbers of the Korean War itself. And a few American soldiers even went turncoat and defected to North Korea.

The funny thing about James Dresnok is while he looks like he's got it made, he sure drinks a lot. Note also all the full unopened bottles on the table. Most of us would stick that in the fridge already....

And they still like taking American POWs (as Merrill NewmanLaura Ling, Kenneth Bae and Euna Lee can tell you.)

So that kinda wipes it off most people's travel plans.

The only factor it does have going for it is outside curiosity. Because many people want to peek over the bamboo curtain and see what it looks like. Not that there's much to see.

So let's look at what's there:


There is no rock music in North Korea. Or ever has been. There's been buzzing talk all over the record collector forums of The Beatles having official North Korean albums. But that's just amateur vinyl collectors trying to psyche the novices with South Korean Beatles albums and there's no actual evidence of any official North Korean Beatles releases.

Nice try.
Or ANY Western pop music. Ever. No blues, country, jazz, punk, rap or thrash metal either. Not for North Koreans.

Even in the Kim family's better moods.

North Korean music is the only music in the world in North Korea. You do not get to play the music the Dear Leader does not approve. Any other music, especially from capitalist countries, is punishable by (assume the worst.)

The only pop music in North Korea is a hybrid electronic Easy Listening / Classical / Soft Adult Contemporary kind of propaganda delivered via acts such as The North Korean Army Band, The Moranbong Band, The Pyongyang Gold Stars and The Ponchonbo Electric Ensemble and simply everybody's favourite, Unknown.

These aren't exactly The Greatest Hits of All Time in the rest of the world.

(But that doesn't mean Western pop doesn't sneak in in some strange and subtle way. Take The Pyongyang Gold Stars accordion reworking of a-ha's 1980's classic "The Sun Always Shines On TV")

Going through the North Korean YouTube channels, here are the current hits. Not in any particular order. There are no pop charts in North Korea and only a more dedicated music eccentric than I outside of North Korea would know WHEN they were actually released to the public there. If ever. Or WHO they actually are.

It's been said members of the North Korean bands change line-ups worse than Styx, Kiss, Van Halen or even Jefferson Starship. And not exactly by petty egos, drug abuse, solo ambitions or infighting either....

So here's The Latest Hits in North Korea:

"The Leader's Bright Smile" The North Korean Army Band
"Socialism, We Love You" Unknown
"If Mother Party Wishes" The Moranbong Band
"We'll Become Regiment No. 7 of Today!" Unknown
"Let's Study!" The Moranbong Band

This isn't exactly Casey Kasem's Top 40.

Pyongyang 105.2 FM - This is the local FM radio station of Pyongyang. It broadcasts only in the evenings and plays a daily mix of anthems, arduous marches and easy listening pop. All of which praise the regime or are nationalistic in some way.

No "Hit or History" new song battles, no wacky morning zoos, no Top 40 countdowns, no love songs and dedications hours (unless they're for the Dear Leader. Your boyfriend can go boil an egg for all they care.)

Concerts: Did I mention there is no thrash metal in North Korea? Good. Your codpiece is invalid anyway in North Korea. No mosh pits, no festival seating, no Bic lighter waving power ballads, no shouts of "PLAY FREE BIRD!", no high decibel volume levels or risque stage antics. You can take your most conservative grandma to a North Korean concert with confidence.

Some people take a video cam to a concert, others take their hashpipes. Dear Leader takes his big oak office desk. When was the last concert you did that? Slayer?

The Moranbong Band (North Korea's answer to....I guess the closest thing this side of Pyongyang to these girls would be Celtic Woman) is currently the most popular band in North Korea. Because the Dear Leader says so.


Shopping is a tricky subject in North Korea. Because there isn't any.

Actually, there is - in  Pyongyang. But what's there is mostly for display. There is always new construction going on in Pyongyang and what comes up are usually big gorgeous department stores with everything.

Except customers.

But this isn't the real North Korean shopping experience.

This is.


First, there is only one TV channel in North Korea. And only in Pyongyang.

It broadcasts 6-8 hours a day. Usually in the evening hours There is no weekday television, filled with gossipy entertainment talk shows, soap operas, infomercials and trailer trash. People are either working or going to school.

The only other daytime broadcast option is a state controlled radio channel that wafts in through most Pyongyang apartment kitchens with programming mostly for housewives.

These radios are built-in and tuned to the main state radio channel. It is only capable of receiving that station. No others. In fact, there's a seal on the back that if broken could send you to the prison camps because it would indicate you were trying to listen to foreign broadcasts. And while you can turn down the volume, you can never turn them off
The TV broadcast day begins at around 4:30pm and features a test card with a soundtrack of instrumental easy listening music similar to the kind you hear on Pyongyang 105.2 FM.

The hottest prime time TV programs in North Korea stars the Dear Leader as he goes around inspecting all sorts of new construction, making comments and gestures as if to say "You know I hate that shade of blue, don't you?"

Often, he is flanked by several army members and an entourage that writes down his comments on little notepads.
 You can watch it live online here: Note that program start times are very erratic. That's because there are no commercials on North Korean TV. The only break up between programs are the music videos (again, only of nationalist music. No titillating girls shaking their butts all over the hoods of sports cars.) 


North Korea is one of those places that would even make a dedicated foodie like me nervous.

Purple beer?
But in a country that starves the majority of it's citizens (except for Dear Leader of course), they take what they can get.

Even the names of the factories that make North Korean food are gross...

It's "crabonated"!
But the first indicator you may have strayed too far (if you missed the Beijing airport, the Air Koryo terminal and the Ilyushin IL-62 you are boarding) are the infamous Air Koryo in-flight hamburgers. 

Computers & Internet

First, there's two platforms of internet access.

For you, the tourist with your tablets and smartphones, there's 3G mobile service thats limited to the special tourist hotel you'll be staying at (P.S. Watch what you tell your Facebook friends and Aunt Sadie in Peoria. It's monitored.) You have to have a special SIM card to call out or receive incoming calls/texts.

For you, the North Korean in Pyongyang, a special intranet that connects only to a government server with only regime approved (and created) sites. There is no home internet service (so much for "Paradise on Earth".) All access to this North Korean-only network is for university students and higher-ups and only at The Great Study Hall and certain universities. The two networks do not connect at all.

Newspapers will be alive and well in North Korea long after the civilized world has abandoned them.
The main computer operating system is North Korea's own Red Star OS. Which is based on Linux and functions similar to Windows XP. It is only in Korean and accesses the North Korean intranet only. There are download links to a pirated copy and if you dare with an old computer, you can install it. But you won't be able to access the North Korean intranet, as it is completely off the grid from the main internet.

These are screenshots from an older version. The newest version which came out earlier this year resembles Mac OS X.    

There is now a little tablet computer for North Koreans, based on Android called Samjiyon. It comes with a North Korean version of Angry Birds. It doesn't have any internet or even North Korean intranet access.

Style & Fashion

Note the pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on the walls. They are mandatory in every apartment, every house, every building and every office and in every public room in North Korea and are to be treated with the same reverence a religious person would give their most cherished symbols. If not more so... 

You know those big books of modern hairstyles you see in most beauty salons? In North Korea, they have those too. Each one carefully selected by the regime (lest your hair become a subversive agent in itself.)

There's even a TV show in North Korea called (and I'm not making this up) Let's Trim Our Hair In Accordance With The Socialist Lifestyle

No slacker shags. No dreadlocks, no poofy curls, no punk mohawks. You can't dye your hair or go totally bald. Or deviate and create your own look in any way. What you see is what you get. 

But more recently, it's been said all male university students must now have the same Operation game haircut as the Dear Leader.

I must say that's not a look that works for every guy. Not even Dear Leader. But who's going to tell him "Dear Leader, your hair looks like a mustache glued to the top of an egg"? Who?

You can't get tattoos in North Korea. No string bikinis for the ladies. No badass leather jackets. No t-shirts, no jeans, no sneakers.

The military look seems all the rage. When a third of the population is conscripted to some military service, that's to be expected.

When all is said and done, you're probably thinking "These people will never change. They will live forever in this existential hellhole of make believe on one end and brutal repression, starvation and very bad taste on the other." 

That's not entirely true...

Outside pop culture is sneaking in (as it always does.) On black market thumb drives and DVDs filled with South Korean TV shows, movies and other material. However, DVDs are becoming a less favoured option and here is why. Electricity is scarce in North Korea and blackouts are frequent. But most especially, some of the blackouts are planned. So police can conduct door by door searches for any contraband and should you wind up with a naughty illegal DVD stuck in your DVD player because you can't open the thing (not an easy thing to do in the dark with cops banging at the door), you and your entire family are doomed. Thumb drives are easier to hide and most modern Chinese made DVD players have thumb drive players built in. Little wind-up shortwave radios are also coming in. 

You see, any totalitarian regime begins to collapse when it suppresses pop culture. It's simple human nature to have fun and colour in our lives. To not only see and dream about the outside world, but to travel beyond our own borders. Be they geographic or in our own minds

Rock 'n roll itself caused more rust to the Iron Curtain than any of Reagan's tough talk in the 1980s through smuggled records and tapes in the '60s and '70s.

A magazine ad from 1980.
By the 1980s, Gorbachev himself knew the totalitarianism of his predecessors was impossible to maintain. The people of the former Soviet Union were demanding change. He had no other choice but to begin glasnost (or "openness".) Which led to fall of the Eastern Bloc nations, the Berlin Wall to where we are today. China itself, once one of the most hardline of totalitarian states, now has freewheeling pop culture.

Will North Korea change?

It will. But not overnight. Change doesn't work that way. You just have to keep chipping away until the wall finally collapses.

But it will collapse. History doesn't lie.


  1. I'm surprised there aren't any comments yet. This was an excellent read, and I really appreciate the effort that went into this.

    1. Thanks! I'm surprised Kim Jung Un hasn't personally declared war on me yet for writing it. Cheers!

  2. Really poor article. Apart from the nonsensical "Hurr durr NK will collapse no pop kultur" talk (check out 38North's article on collapsism), it's full of factual inaccuracies, misses out a number of major details and it's seemingly written by someone who hasn't really gone far outside the suburbs.

    Let's begin piece by piece. "Nothing to see" in North Korea ? Well...considering that they've preserved traditional Confucian, Korean culture in a remarkably anachronistic manner, there's a lot to see there so long as you're not the typical gung-ho American tourist. There's a reason why Russian and Chinese tourists are allowed to see a lot more than American ones. South Korea, as any Americanised East Asian state, has little genuinely Korean to offer. North Korea: the old Asian opium-smoking as pain relief, regular ssirum contests, sun-drying of produce on roofs. If anything, it's a gigantic open-air museum on 20th century Asia. South Korea ? Gangnam Style, k-drama and neons. I can see the same plastic shit in at least 40 other high-income countries.

    Second: pop culture. North Koreans ARE familiar with Western culture. Not only do they study it through selected films and pieces of literature in courses with that specific purpose, but they also study foreign languages and university personnel have access to a variety of foreign journals. Some years ago they used to issue compilations of foreign music on CDs, though I have no idea if they still do so. The only department where they're seriously behind is cinema, as the quality of their films both technically and aesthetically is still piss-poor (though the last few films show improvement).

    Shopping does exist in North Korea, but Google should be your friend on this one, not even worth going at length here. Also, Kim Jong-un never ordered university students to adopt his haircut. Newspapers in the (how sweetly supremacist) "civilised" world are far from being abandoned, as they obviously infuriate Islamic terrorists. The Eastern Bloc had decent access to Western programming long, long before perestroika and collapsed entirely because of unaddressed socio-economic issues. Finally, North Korea is really bad. But this article is a lot worse. You won't get far with posts of this quality.

    1. How's Fat Boy doing? You must be related to him.

    2. If you think "collapsism" is a word then you are taking your knowledge of knowledge regarding this topic waaaay too seriously.


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