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ASIA / PACIFIC
February 18, 2019
THE ASIAN REPORTER n Page 5
K-pop and fancy sneakers: Kim Jong Un’s cultural revolution
By Eric Talmadge
The Associated Press
YONGYANG, North Korea —
Dancers in hot pants. Factories
lookalikes. TV dramas that are actually
fun to watch.
North Korean pop culture, long
dismissed by critics as a kitschy throwback
to the dark days of Stalinism, is getting a
major upgrade under leader Kim Jong Un.
The changes are being seen in
everything from television dramas and
animation programs to the variety and
packaging of consumer goods, which have
improved significantly under Kim.
Whether it’s a defensive attempt to keep
up with South Korea or an indication that
Kim is willing to embrace aspects of
western consumer culture that his
predecessors might have viewed as
suspiciously bourgeois isn’t clear.
“The most important thing for us is to
produce a product that suits the people’s
tastes,” Kim Kyong Hui of the Ryuwon
Shoe Factory told The Associated Press
recently in the facility’s showroom, which
is filled with dozens of kinds of shoes for
running, volleyball, soccer — even table
tennis. “The respected leader Kim Jong Un
has instructed us to closely study shoes
from all over the world and learn from
their example,” she added, pointing to a
pair of flame-red high-top basketball
To be sure, North Korea remains one of
the most insular countries in the world.
Change comes cautiously and anyone who
openly criticizes the government or
leadership or is seen as a threat can expect
severe repercussions. But there appears to
be more of a willingness under Kim to
experiment around some of the edges.
The most visible upgrades are on
television and its normal menu of
propaganda programs and documentaries
in praise of the leaders.
Viewers of the main state-run TV
network — the only channel that can be
seen anywhere in the country — are now
stopping their routines to watch the latest
episodes of “The Wild Ginseng Gatherers
of the Imjin War,” a historical drama set in
the late 16th century, when Korea was
struggling against a Japanese invasion.
The anti-Japan, nationalistic theme is
nothing new. A similar theme was used for
Kim Jong Un’s first big contribution to the
television lineup, an animated series
reviving a popular comic from his father’s
era called “The Boy General” that made its
debut in 2015. The animation, set in the
Koguryo period when Korea was fighting
off Chinese incursions, was such a hit that
people would stop whatever they were
doing to watch it. A Boy General game was
created for mobile phones. New episodes
are believed to be forthcoming.
What the TV drama, first aired last July,
and “The Boy General” animation share
that’s new is their high production values.
The acting in the movie is grittier and
more compelling, the plots more engaging,
and the sets and costumes are decidedly
more elaborate than previous projects.
Even the dialogue spoken in Japanese by
the villains, played of course by North
Korean actors, is generally accurate,
though delivered with a heavy North
Korean accent. “The Boy General,”
meanwhile, makes skillful use of computer
effects and is visually on par with some of
the best animation in the world.
The improvements reflect an awareness
within Kim’s regime that the North
Korean public is increasingly familiar with
foreign pop culture despite severe
restrictions that make it impossible for
most to travel abroad or freely experience
foreign movies, music, or books.
That familiarity is particularly true of
the North Korean elite, who are
accustomed to seeing brand name
products from Dior to Sony on the shelves
of upscale stores in Pyongyang, the capital.
Cheap knockoffs from China are common
in marketplaces around the country.
Watching South Korean movies or
listening to South Korean music is illegal.
But a lot makes its way over the border
and, even for those who would never
dream of taking that risk, the officially
approved cultural fare isn’t entirely void of
Bollywood films are popular in state-run
cinemas — 2009’s Three Idiots with Aamir
Khan, for example, was recently shown in
a cinema just across the street from Kim Il
Sung Square. North Korea’s educational
channel regularly features long clips
dog-eared Harry Potter books are among
the most popular items at the People’s
Grand Study House, North Korea’s biggest
North Korea’s “approach to the influx of
foreign media has been to ‘modernize’
media production to provide an attractive
and competitive product that caters to
younger generations for whom older
productions are no longer attractive,” said
Geoffrey See, the founder of the Choson
Exchange, a Singapore-based nonprofit
that supports change in North Korea
through exposure to knowledge and
information in business, entrepreneur-
ship, and law.
“For consumer goods, it also ties into a
state policy to encourage more domestic
production and import substitution,” he
Kim’s first attempt to update the pop
culture scene started almost as soon as he
assumed power in late 2011 with the crea-
tion of the Moranbong Band, an ensemble
of female vocalists and musicians who are
the “soft face” of his regime.
Although the members all belong to the
Korean People’s Army, they are known for
performing in miniskirts and wearing
their hair fashionably short. They have
released dozens of songs, all of which get
lots of exposure through concert tours,
DVDs, and airtime on television.
They are beginning to look a bit passe,
In February last year, North Korea sent
some of its top musicians, including a
Help us find a cure.
CULTURAL REVOLUTION. A guide stands
near a basketball shoe display in a product exhibition
room at the Ryuwon Shoe Factory that specializes in
sports footwear, in Pyongyang, North Korea. North
Korean pop culture, long dismissed by critics as a
kitschy throwback to the dark days of Stalinism, is
getting a major upgrade under leader Kim Jong Un.
The changes are being seen in everything from televi-
sion dramas and animation programs to the variety
and packaging of consumer goods, which have
improved under Kim. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)
female quintet that performed in black
shorts and red tops, south of the
Demilitarized Zone to perform during
South Korea’s PyeongChang Winter
Olympics. Two months later, Kim was in
the audience as the South Korean girl
group Red Velvet put on what is believed to
be the first real K-pop show ever held in
Pyongyang. The North Korean act that
performed in South Korea was so well
received that Kim sent them to Beijing last
month for another goodwill tour.
Still, military orchestras and classically
trained vocalists who perform in
traditional Choson-ot gowns remain the
mainstay of the Pyongyang musical scene.
The girl band’s performance in Beijing was
backed up by the state’s military chorus
and orchestra, all in full uniform.
More importantly, there has been no
effort to delink the arts from politics.
When the musical group returned to
Pyongyang, Kim urged them to continue to
“conduct original artistic activities
pulsating with the party’s ideology” and
act “courageously as mouthpieces of the
party,” according to state media.
Talmadge has been the Pyongyang bureau
chief for The Associated Press since 2013.
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Cambodia blasts E.U. move to consider lifting trade privileges
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) —
Cambodia has issued a strong response to
announcement that it is beginning the
process to withdraw preferential duty-free
and quota-free status for imports from
Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry
called the decision an “extreme injustice”
that ignored steps the government has
taken to improve civil and political rights.
In announcing the measure, E.U. Trade
commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom charged
Cambodia with “severe deficiencies when
it comes to human rights and labor
The European action begins a six-month
monitoring process, and the withdrawal of
privileges could be decided in a year.
Cambodia said the European move
“takes the risk of negating 20 years worth
of development efforts” that have helped
pull millions of Cambodians out of poverty.
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