Land of misinformation
One of the most oft-repeated topics in present-day South Korea is ``hallyu,” or Korean wave, which has allegedly swept across China, Japan and many other countries of Asia. Koreans are surprised, thrilled and amused by seeing themselves as a provider of cultural icons and mass entertainment. So it’s understandable that being carried away by nationalist enthusiasm they often tend to overemphasize the impact and significance of the hallyu phenomenon.
But there is one country where the impact of hallyu seems to remain unreported whilst being quite important and politically significant ― this country is North Korea.
There is a fundamental difference in the attitude the two Koreas take in regard to one another. To simplify things a bit, one can say that the South Koreans usually don’t care too much about North Korea. But in the North, people are fascinated by and eagerly devour all information about the South they can get access to.
Gaining access to these fragments and pieces of South Korea is no easy task since North Korean authorities have been remarkably effective in cutting their population off from the outside world. North Koreans cannot travel to the South, they cannot send letters and they cannot watch movies or listen to South Korean music, let alone listen to South Korean broadcasts. Or can they?
During the last 10 years or so, the arrival of new technologies produced a dramatic increase in the amount of interactions between North and South. The North Korean government does not like this increase, but it cannot do much about it.
It was the VHS video tape player, and then the DVD player which acted the part of major blockade runners, delivering forbidden information about the outside world to the average North Korean household.
North Korea’s authorities have banned the private ownership of radio sets with free-tuning since at least the 1960s. Anyone found in possession of such a radio is a criminal, even though nowadays people can usually pay bribes to avoid punishment. However the DVD player is perfectly legal.
When the first DVD players appeared in North Korea around 2000, it was assumed that they would be used to watch politically healthy movies like, say, the countless biopics of the Great Leader and his family members. But this did not happen because most DVD owners used these contraptions to watch to foreign offerings which are smuggled from China in large quantities.
This foreign fare is not necessarily synonymous with South Korean or American movies, since the North Korean audience also has other politically less subversive tastes. For example, North Koreans are fond of syrupy Indian melodramas as well as martial arts movies of Hong Kong. Both are usually illegal in North Korea, but the authorities tend to turn a blind eye since they do not see Bollywood as a serious ideological threat (and rightly so).
However, it is South Korean and American movies which are watched with the greatest interest. Theoretically it is a serious crime to buy and sell the DVDs and video CDs (VCDs) containing such movies. It is also illegal to swap and watch these ``subversive” materials. Nonetheless it is done widely, not least because people assume: in days of rampant corruption, one can buy one’s way out of trouble with relative ease.
The penetration of DVDs is difficult to estimate since there are seemingly no statistics. But it seems that in the wealthier parts of the country ― that is Pyongyang and the borderlands ― up to 25 percent of all households might boast a DVD player. Since it is common to watch movies together with trusted friends and relatives, it means that in those regions, a majority have regular access to DVDs and their contents. For practical purposes this means that a majority of North Koreans have most likely watched South Korean movies over the past five to 10 years.
We should not think that North Koreans believe everything they see in these movies and TV dramas. Their own movies have always presented a grossly embellished picture of life in North Korea and they expect this to be the case everywhere in the world. For example, as my own talks with North Korean refugees confirm, few of them believed that the average South Korean family has a car when they saw their first South Korean TV dramas. The interior of a normal South Korean apartment, frequently shown in movies, did not look plausible to them either ― they believed that this was a set, and that such a lifestyle (with that unbelievably large fridge in the kitchen!) would be available only to a chosen few. Nonetheless, they also know that there are things which are difficult or impossible to fake ― like, say, the Seoul cityscape with all those high-rise buildings and giant bridges, and they use these trustworthy data as clues to guess that South Korea is very rich indeed.
North Korean people are now increasingly aware about South Korea’s prosperity. As one defector, a woman in her late 50s, remarked to the present author: ``Well, perhaps children from primary schools still believe that South Koreans are poor. Everybody else knows that the South is rich.”
Needless to say, this discovery is likely to have serious political consequences for the regime, albeit it might take years before these consequences will be felt.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.