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How K-pop became a weapon of propaganda and what changed after the decision on the truce between South Korea and the DPRK

For years North Korean soldiers on the border were on duty to the pop music of their political enemy, but now this genre is praised by Kim Jong-un.

On April 27, 2018, the leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong-un, and South Korean President Mun Zhe Ying agreed to sign an agreement on the end of the Korean War by the end of 2018, which officially lasted more than 65 years. With this decision the question arose about the fate of the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea. The military garrison, approximately 250 kilometers long, built in July 1953, became a kind of symbol of the “endless” confrontation between the two countries.

The territory was fenced with fences with barbed wire, and on each side of the country an armed guard was identified. It was he who until recently had to hear K-pop music from the loudspeakers on the South Korean side daily. For North Korean soldiers unfamiliar with this culture, it was a completely new experience, which eventually reached the head of state.

Music from the outside

Until April 2018, when the South Korean loudspeakers were turned off in connection with the meeting of the representatives of the two states, they did not stop for more than two years. Eleven columns broadcast local news and weather forecasts for many kilometers to North Korea, but most often K-pop. Loud and energetic pop-genre, created on the basis of American heritage, was perceived by North Korean soldiers as something strange and contradictory.

The lyrics talked about free love, money and fame, but never about the greatness of the leaders or the government of the country, as is customary in the DPRK. For the soldiers of the communist power, K-pop became the door to the world, from which they tried to fence off the authorities. Part of this was the idea of ​​the South Korean military – as planned, the songs were supposed to convince the North Korean soldiers to flee their native country for a better life.

South Korean soldiers are installing loudspeakers in the demilitarized zone. EPA photo
South Korean soldiers are installing loudspeakers in the demilitarized zone. EPA photo

The idea to suppress the will of the enemy with the help of voice messages through loudspeakers stretches from a long time: during the Second World War, it was actively used as Nazis, surrounding Soviet cities and promising the citizens good in exchange for surrender and allied troops. The trend continued into the Korean War and took an unusual shape during the Vietnam War. In February 1970, American troops in the framework of Operation “The Wandering Soul” used a propaganda record against the North Vietnamese soldiers who were sitting in ambush.

The tape sounded screams, female crying and the voice of a child calling his father, as well as a voice calling listeners to leave their weapons and return home, otherwise they will go to hell after death. The technology was not widely spread, and its effectiveness was not checked, but if you believe the evidence, it really reduced the will of individual units at the front.

Recording, sounded from the loudspeakers of American soldiers during Operation “The Wandering Soul”

South Korea launched a “musical attack” in January 2016, when North Korea conducted the fourth nuclear tests. The Communist state repeatedly protested against the broadcast of K-pop, although it also uses propaganda tools against the opponent.

The music and news from the loudspeakers so aggravated the northern side that one day it led to an exchange of artillery strikes between countries, but then there were no casualties. Kim Jong Eun threatened that if the South Korean authorities did not disconnect the column, he would give the order for a full-scale attack. Experts believe that this is a sign that the authorities of the DPRK are seriously concerned about such a mechanism of propaganda.

“North Korean soldiers on the front line do not have the opportunity to not hear the K-pop broadcast from South Korean loudspeakers. Both countries speak the same language, so that the northerners unwittingly understand the lyrics, ” said Young University professor at the University of Texas Young Joon Lim in a conversation with Outline.

Effect of influence

According to the deserters of the DPRK, they learned about the details of life in South Korea only thanks to the transmissions from the loudspeakers. Citizens have been taught since childhood that Western countries, including South Korea, do not develop and envy the successes of the DPRK, so the transfers from the columns to many become a revelation. Equally heavily influenced by this is the K-pop, which until recently was banned in the country.

On average, the broadcasts were broadcast from two to six hours in the afternoon and up to 10 hours at night. Depending on the weather and terrain, the signal is audible at a distance of up to 10 kilometers during the day and up to 24 kilometers at night. The DPRK also uses loudspeakers for propaganda, but they, according to South Korea, are of lower quality.

South Korean activists are working together with the Human Rights Foundation, aninternational human rights organization, to shape the worldview of the northern neighbors . Since 2015, they secretly launch drones with SD-cards and USB-devices on the territory of North Korea, which store movies, music, serials and saved articles on Wikipedia. Thus, activists delivered more than 1,000 carriers to the DPRK, while the places of dispatch and delivery are kept secret.

“Impossible to draw conclusions immediately, but this (the translation of K-pop through loudspeakers – note  ) definitely has an impact. A North Korean soldier who crossed the South Korean border in December 2017 claimed to love K-pop, “explains Professor Yonjun Im. Waking up in the hospital after the wounded soldiers, the deserter really asked to include him the song of the South Korean band Girls’ Generation.

Since the inception of K-pop, the government has supported the development of the genre. In 2005, when he was only gaining momentum, South Korean authorities invested a billion dollars in it. By 2016, the market capitalization of this market has reached 4.7 billion dollars.

Experts believe that K-pop does have a propagandistic influence: performers, mostly young and attractive girls, sing about money and fame, and wear expensive clothes in clips. This builds in the foreigner’s mind the impression that South Korea is a rich and powerful country. An important role is played by the lack of political connotations in the songs, as well as simple text and sound.

Diplomacy with K-pop

South Korean loudspeakers turned off on April 24, 2018 – shortly before the official meeting of the leaders of North and South Korea. Since then, there has been no new data on the resumption of their work, but in the future such an opportunity exists.

In 2004, the broadcast was stopped by an agreement with the DPRK. In 2010, Seoul threatened to restart it, but limited to radio broadcasts. In August 2015, South Korea threatened to be carried out in a few weeks after two border guards were blown up by mines. The blame for this was laid on Pyongyang. Since then, the loudspeakers were turned off only for a short period, resuming in 2016. As the BBC reports , broadcasting through the speakers is an effective measure that can be applied during future negotiations with the DPRK.

The clip of the band Red Velvet, which performed in North Korea in April 2018

Around 2003, USB devices began to gain popularity in the country. Unlike DVD-disks, it was convenient to hide them as civil during the checks, and for the soldiers. Often on devices stored files with Western movies or music, including K-pop tracks.

According to the American independent research of 2016, 26% of deserters, refugees and tourists from the DPRK keep USB-devices. In recent years, the price in the country for such devices has declined significantly, amounting to about five dollars (on average, North Koreans earn about four dollars a day).

Report on the appearance of Kim Jong-un at a concert of the South Korean K-pop group

Despite the restrictions, K-pop slowly but surely penetrates into the culture of North Korea. In April 2018, two K-pop groups from South Korea arrived in the country, gathering a full concert hall in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un personally greeted the delegation and, together with his wife, attended their speech. This is the first since 2003 when North Korea admitted musicians from South Korea.

As the scientific journal Discover, with the rise to power of Kim Jong-un, the attitude of the DPRK to foreign culture has become more positive. The 34-year-old leader belongs to modern music much more loyal to his predecessors. The leader of North Korea admitted that he “adjusted his schedule” for the arrival of the South Korean group Red Velvet in the country. As the North Korean state television channel reported after the concert, the head of state “was touched when he saw that the people of the country sincerely reacted to the speech, deepening their understanding of the pop art of the southern side.”

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