Neither Deliberate Nor Accident: The Long Road to K-Pop

Let’s be honest, Asian pop music doesn’t get a lot of respect. K-pop is definitely rising in popularity, but a cursory examination of coverage by Western media reveals a lot of prejudice (I’m looking at you Jon Caramanica of the New York Times, author of “Korean Pop Machine, Running on Innocence and Hair Gel”). In the broadest strokes, K-pop will have to stand up to accusations of being manufactured and derivative, implying that real music is created by American or British artists who have struggled through poverty for the sheer love of performing, gradually winning over a fan base before finally achieving fame/selling out to the man. Such depictions are a topic for another day, however. For now, I want to provide context for how we got the K-pop we know and love — or at least have a complicated relationship with — today.

For starters, let’s get one thing straight: K-pop and J-pop are very different things, which you know if you’ve ever heard them (BoA and DBSK defy this logic, but they’re very special cases). Kim Chang Nam1 draws a line between music before and after the 90s, which is essentially a line before and after Hallyu, or a line before and after democratization and the easing of censorship. Really, that decade just flipped everything on its head and those changes are all reflected in the popular music and culture. Still, there are a few things that have remained constant: hybridity and political influence. Korean popular music has always combined several generic styles and international influences, particularly from the US and Japan. The exploration of some of these styles was cut off by military regimes when deemed politically expedient. At other times, perhaps most particularly today, music is used as a medium for national representation or spreading a national-political vision. This will be a brief overview of the development of Korean popular music from its beginning through the colonial period to liberation, then the turbulent military regimes from the 60s through the 80s, and finally a look at the early 90s when the last few stylistic and production elements were introduced, setting the stage for K-pop and the musical branches of Hallyu.

The hybridity of Korean music has never been a secret or source of shame, nor is it something that started with K-pop in the 90s. The traditional genre of folk songs was popularized to create a genre of new folk songs (sinminyo) in the 1920s when radio broadcasting and the recording industry got their start in Korea. Western genres of folk, classics and jazz found their way over, often filtered through Japanese music (because colonization) to mix with traditional styles and form “trot”. Similar production styles allowed a lot of crossover. Trot dominated from the 1930s to the 1960s, with its upbeat songs of tragedy, even when American influence increased after liberation (1945). American-style songs reached the same level as trot from 1961, with “The Boy in the Yellow Shirt”.

Many of the performers got their start playing for U.S. troops and Kim associates this music with urban middle-class lifestyles. However, it failed to solidify into a distinct genre and faded in the 70s.  Dance music was particularly popular, giving rise to serious social concern. Kim suggests that trot drew on the heartbreaking circumstances of many Koreans, whereas the American music was more escapist. Although many American genres were influential, acoustic folk rock seems to have been the most popular.

Likewise, mass media has been a vehicle for supporting political authority since it was introduced to the peninsula. The Japanese certainly weren’t promoting radios out of the goodness of their hearts. Music was highly, highly censored until rather recently, by one regime after another. Of course, there were subversive musical elements too, but I’ll let E. Taylor Atkins2 explain that if you’re curious. Park Chung Hee also promoted or suppressed music to bolster his flagging legitimacy. He composed two lively propaganda songs himself in the 60s, but in 1971 cracked down on rock music, long hair, and mini-skirts as “vulgar, decadent culture” that undermined his vision of ideal obedient, industrious subjects. This change is connected to international economic recession and domestic political challenges, especially the normalization of relations with Japan, which had badly damaged Park’s legitimacy and ultimately led to the Yushin constitution in 19723.

Park Chung Hee

Shin Joong Hyun

This quest to remove “impure” influences meant many musical venues were shut down, songs banned by censors, and many musicians, like Shin Joong Hyun, were prosecuted for marijuana use (though there weren’t clear legal grounds as marijuana wasn’t technically illegal. Shin believes he was persecuted because he refused to write propaganda songs praising Park’s presidency). So youth culture was smacked down hard just as it started to build. Rock went underground and stayed there while go-go clubs thrived by working around curfews; thus we see a strong trend towards dance music (There’s also some evidence to suggest that banning rock and folk cost Korea in good beer as it was part of the same independent youth culture as blue jeans and rock. If Hallyu can somehow bring better booze to the peninsula I swear I will forgive all the sequins and even some of the feathers. Though most idols are probably a better metaphor for Hite or Cass, there are a few who could perhaps save us from this dismal fate).

And so trot rose once more, setting aside some of its melancholy and fusing with some elements of rock, go-go, and disco to reach out to new youth. Then Chun Doo Hwan opened the door for more sex, color TV,  and pro sports, but by no means eased up on censorship (the “3S policies: sex, screen, and sports). More importantly (yes, more important than even a new military dictator), teenagers came into their own as consumers. Not just teenagers — teenagers with color TV (and thus variety shows!) and video games, teenagers more visually oriented and flush with cash than any generation before them. So, not so shockingly, the music industry began to prioritize dancing skills and good looks, producing “idols” rather than “artists”. Pop ballads were left as the middle ground between adults’ trot and teens’ dance music.Thus we have many of the key elements of K-Pop in place by the 80s.

While many of the changes in the 1990s were behind the scenes, on the surface, two new trends revolutionized the way Koreans approached music. It is easy to forget that the ubiquitous karaoke room has not always been a feature of Korean life. Introduced to Pusan by a video game arcade owner in April 1991, its popularity spread nationwide in under a year. The government encouraged it as “healthy-minded” entertainment (Russell 2008: 149-150). Then Seo Taiji and Boys took Korea by storm in 1992, with dynamic hip hop music and dance moves, all written, arranged, and recorded independently. The sudden removal of censorship had opened the door for new music styles and Seo Taiji certainly was different. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8em1w3KIFA). Korean b-boy culture also formed a few years later. All that was missing was the means of production.

Seo Taiji and Boys

Lee Soo Man, a former DJ, was working on this, however, bringing to life his vision of a new style of management that oversaw the development and production of artists from audition to training to public persona, encompassing every aspect of the performance and personal life. Under this system, the company invested heavily in every hopeful trainee, reclaiming the cost from the earnings of those lucky few who succeeded. Unlike the Western system, musicians generally came with little to no experience and therefore were indebted to the company for any success, which could put a serious cramp in their artistic and personal freedoms 4.

H.O.T. “Candy”

Three entertainment companies now dominate the Korean music industry. In 1995, just before the financial crisis, Lee Soo Man’s SM Entertainment launched H.O.T, its first great success. They started out bright, colorful, and playful but later moved to a more goth look. Since then, the company has debuted a successful group or star almost every year. The other two largest entertainment companies, JYP and YG, were started by former artists Jin Young Park (a solo R&B artist) in 1997, and Yang Hyun Suk (one of Seo Taiji’s boys) in 1998 respectively (Cube totally deserves mention as the fourth and many other companies have sprung up in the wake of Hallyu). Each brought their own style and experience to create distinct sounds and brands, yet the three companies tend to adapt successful strategies of their rivals, contributing to a general K-pop image.While each company has different relationships with trainees, it is the company that is ultimately responsible for the strategic design of each star’s image. This has led to the widespread reputation of Korean music as strategically manufactured for commercial goals, such as a New York Times review of the 2011 Madison Square Garden concert, in which Jon Caramanica describes the industry with phrases such as “companies that specialize in manufacturing a steady stream of teenage idols”, “it only slightly tweaked that polyglot K-pop formula”, and auditions that “will keep the machine oiled” (*shakes fist vehemently*).

1997 was a year of terrible upheaval and opportunity. The Asian Financial Crisis (or IMF Crisis, as Korea calls it) was a really big deal. I’m not going to go into it now (neoliberal reform!!), but it was a game-changer in soooooooo many ways. What you need to know for right now is that Asian countries could no longer afford Japanese media so Korea had an opportunity to export popular media (they’d been liberally borrowing Japanese formats and were much cheaper).  Korea seized that opportunity. Big time. Also, the government started to introduce new ideals and goals for Korean individuals, which lined up rather nicely with the entertainment industry (qualities like creativity, language and tech skills, or international experience). Did I mention that the government was strongly promoting awesome internet connections? I should mention that. It has a lot to do with the rapid spread of Hallyu.

Technically, one can date the Korean Wave to 1997 when melodramas first began to pick up popularity in China (this is when and why they coined the term “Hallyu”) and other nations.  The Hallyu that most of you reading this in English recognize probably hit the scene closer to 2003-2004 (the era of Winter Sonata, Full House, Dae Jang Geum etc). The dramas had a pivotal role in K-pop because many stars didn’t gain wide fame until after success as an actor (like Rain in Full House or Jung Young Hwa in You’re Beautiful). Reminder: rock was/is still very much an underground indie thing, so some groups played in Japan, which has a stronger rock scene, but most aren’t known outside Korea. There has been a lot of change and development to the keen observer. I’m running out of steam here so I’ll sum this up: lots of familiar boy and girl groups in the late 90s (far more bubble gum and at that time called gayo), replaced by solo R&B giants for a few years (Rain, Wheesung, SE7EN, Lee Hyori), before bigger shinier boy bands and girl groups, riding the full momentum of the Korean Wave culminate in the K-Pop we know today. Those two decades of K-Pop are rather complex, especially the last decade (the transition from kkotminam flower boys to jimseungdol beastly idols alone is a fun shift….), deserving their own separate analysis.

It’s true that the visual and dance elements have been in place for some time, but K-Pop isn’t stagnant or one-dimensional. Nor is it the sum of all Korean popular music. The prioritization of K-Pop as part of Hallyu has come at the expense of other genres, but there is reason to hope for diversification. Competitive shows in an American Idol format are bringing interesting changes to the line ups of major companies, especially more folk-style singers. K-pop artists are exploring more genres in their songs or new bands strongly align themselves with a particular genre, like hip-hop. Korean rappers seem to be gaining more exposure and b-boys are lobbying for government support. Then again, this overwhelming surge itself brings potential problems like oversaturation of markets or loss of quality in the rush to jump on the bandwagon. The strong connection between pop music, celebrity culture, and nation branding is something I will discuss often and at length. I hope this brief (ha ha, but seriously, I held back) background will provide a starting point for some of those conversations. Thanks.


Citations and Notes
01. Kim Chang Nam, K-POP: Roots and Blossoming of Korean Popular Music .

02. Atkins, E. Taylor. Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945, detailing the popularity of Korean music in Japan during the colonial era.

03. Pil Ho Kim and Hyunjoon Shin’s The Birth of “RoK”: Cultural Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Glocalization of Rock Music in South Korea, 1964-1975

04. Russell, Mark. Pop Goes Korea (there’s a chapter on SM Entertainment).

Note: I’m in the middle of moving and can’t access the books…… so if you need page numbers, write me a message and I’ll find them for you later.

Ahab Watches “The King 2 Hearts”: Ep 2

Whoa, hi again! Today, I’d like to talk to you about femininity in North Korea — particularly, revolutionary femininity, how it came to be, and how it’s portrayed in “The King 2 Hearts” in Kim Hang Ah. After that, I promise we’ll have more pretty pictures and me going “LOOK AT THAT THING! AND THAT THING!”



Revolutionary Femininity

So in this, I’m going to be taking a lot from Suk-Young Kim’s “Illusive Utopia,” and specifically chapter 5, wherein she looks at femininity and its shifts over time by analyzing films, revolutionary operas, revolutionary operas that were turned into films, and fashion. First, let’s go back and look at how the feminine and how women’s labour has evolved since the founding of the DPRK. I promise we’re going somewhere with this (this is why you never ask an anthropologist to tell a story — when they start at the beginning, they start at the beginning) (you should totally ask anthropologists to tell stories, though; we’re the best storytellers).

Obviously, a huge part of the founding of the DPRK was doing away with the traditional gender roles (changing ideas about gender actually sprung up around the time Korea was opened to the West. You had Koreans writing newspaper articles/opinion pieces about how shameful it was that women were treated the way they were and look how backwards Korea is1. I digress, but don’t get it twisted: changing ideas of gender weren’t unique to the socialists, but they did institutionalize them). The law on the equality between the sexes was passed in 1946, the same time the land reform happened. The latter gave women and men land equally, and the former outlawed the kwonbŏn system to train kisaeng and ended concubinage, allowed women to marry and divorce freely, outlawed primogeniture and made inheritances equal among all children, and, most importantly, gave equal rights in politics. The government also gave mothers and pregnant women rights with Labour Laws 14-17. So pretty much right after liberation (remember, the Korean Peninsula was liberated on August 15th, but the state wasn’t officially founded until 1948 (with the first Constitution)), you have sweeping reforms happening all over the country2.

To organize women (revolutionarily but also socially and stuff) you had the Women’s Defense League, begun in 1946 (those who’ve studied SoKo will remember there were similar leagues in South Korea during the Park Chung Hee era to institutionalize certain gender norms. The same is true for NoKo). By mobilizing women, you bring in a huge workforce, which your nation desperately needs if it’s going to rebuild (and particularly after the Korean War), and while women made up only 20% of the workforce in 1956, they were 48% of it in 19953, making up 56% of the agricultural labour force, 70% of the light industry labour force, and 80% of elementary educators (anyone who’s studied SoKo will also note that women were largely concentrated in light industry (textile manufacturing and the like, for those unfamiliar) and teaching during this same time period).

It wasn’t just that women were being mobilized, but their labour was being cast as revolutionary. Suk-Young Kim states that the people (인민, 人民, inmin) were imagined (as a community, a la Benedict Anderson) to be underprivileged peasants who had been exploited by corrupt landlords and/or feudal lords (this theme comes up a lot in North Korean cinema. In fact, it comes up in the first North Korean movie, “내 고향” (nae kohyang, “My Hometown”), shot in 1948, and my favourite North Korean movie, “불가사리” (“Pulgasari”)). So you have the people as historically oppressed, and women are portrayed as not just peasants, but also workers and soldiers. I mean, think about it: does it really make sense to exclude half your population from the workforce, including the military? Not really.

So women and their labour come to be seen as revolutionary, particularly through the lifting up of historical women revolutionaries like Kang Pan-sŏk (Kim Il Sung’s mother) and, later, Kim Chŏng-suk (Kim Jong Il’s mother), and associated study groups and stuff. Suk-Young Kim here is drawing particularly from stories like “True Daughter of the Party” and “Sea of Blood.” To quote Kim, “Women are agents of national ideological awakening.”4 So this is basically a carefully crafted and self-supported image. But from this, because these revolutionary operas/films are propaganda and meant to send a message, they’re also taken by SoKo and the US and elsewhere and brought about to foster an idea that North Korean women will, basically, fucking kill you for the revolution.

That’s where Kim Hang Ah comes in.

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We rejoin our friends in the WOC as Kim Hang Ah follows Prince Lee Jae Ha into the bathroom and is like “bro you know what they told me? To kill you the second I saw you” and she knocks him down and he’s like “I’LL GIVE YOU WHATEVER YOU WANT” and she’s all “J/K~!!”

But this falls totally in line with the idea of the woman soldier. She’s fully committed to the revolution and the Party5 and she will fuck your shit up if you’re a counter-revolutionary.

Yet here’s the thing about Kim Hang Ah: she’s in a privileged position to know this, but she’s still totally cognizant of how she comes off, not just to her countrymen, but to the world. Check it:

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This is part of episode 1 where she’s discussing with the dude in charge about whether or not she’ll compete in the WOC. That’s his line in the first cap, urging her to join the WOC and be the fierce female soldier she is. She counters that that’s just the problem — she’s only seen as a fierce female soldier. And a big part of this show is getting others, particuarly Lee Jae Ha, to see her as more than just a soldier who could easily kill him in two seconds flat.

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At this part here, she’s just come back from seeing an old friend. She gets all nostalgic walking over, remembering the promise they made to one another when they were younger: if they were both still single, they’d marry each other. She gets to the restaurant where he’s asked her to come, and he proposes in a grand fashion. Turns out it was a test run for when his actual soon-to-be fiancee shows up. She naturally gets upset and leaves, returning to the training facility to run off her feelings. She trips, twists her ankle, and then breaks down in tears as Lee Jae Ha (who was slacking on his training but happened to be in the gym) was looking at it. As much of a douche as he is, this is one of his better moments.

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He’s comforting her, telling her she’s still young and she can still marry at 30, but she counters that while that’s fine for the South, in the North, she’s an old maid, and a soldier, going back to our previous point. She performs a certain kind of feminine, but one that scares the shit out of dudes in the North.

Basically what I’m getting at here is I appreciate the human portrait (again). “Fierce female soldiers,” daughters of the revolution are still people. The writers of this show have an understanding (I don’t know them so I don’t know how much, but) of the idea of revolutionary femininity and the female soldier. It’s not that she wants to give up being a soldier, but she does want someone who can see beyond the fact that she’s a trained killer and remember/recognize that she’s also a human who wants to be loved just like everybody else.



Episode Contents

Okay! Thanks for sitting (or scrolling) through all that. Here’s some other things in the episode that are relevant and that I want to show you.

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Again, propaganda slogans everywhere. And then Lee Jae Ha, genius, gentleman, scholar, asks if the Leader is a dog.

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This is our good friend, Ri Kang Suk. He’s great people, and we’ll talk more about him later. Right now, I want to emphasize that this dude has the patience of a saint, because Lee Jae Ha just did one of the things you absolutely do. NOT. do in the North: insult any of the Leaders. I’m really understating it when I say there are serious consequences for questioning or insulting the Leaders.

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If this were actually filmed in North Korea, no way they get away with these shots. You always get the entire statue in the frame. No artsy shots, nothing like that. Whole statue, from the front, or a guard there is like “dude” or it gets erased by border guards on exit (if/when they go through your photos).

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Lee Jae Ha surveys his room for the WOC (see, they go back and forth between North and South every two weeks in their training). The slogan on the wall, which the fansubbers didn’t translate, is basically “the officers will take the lead in North-South reunification.”

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For those who know little to nothing about Korean reunification, this is a big point (I really hesitate to call it a talking point, but in some ways, it kind of is): common ethnic identity. It gets trickier in practice, because part of some of the prejudice you find in the South against the North (and people who come to the South from the North) is, “well, how much do we really have in common anymore beyond the fact that we’re ethnically Korean?” But “we’re one Korea” is a thing you hear a lot, both North and South. More North, in my experience, but I didn’t really talk to a lot of people about reunification in the South, outside the one language class where the Korean War and reunification were the discussion topics. But anyway, one of the things that absolutely unites both countries and that they do share is the folk song, “Arirang.” (Here’s two videos: The NY Philharmonic in Pyongyang, and a South Korean choir) I’m actually a little surprised they didn’t sing “Arirang” in this scene, because they always all know it in North-South stories. Anyway, “Arirang” is important, but what’s more important here is the fact that they’re sitting together and sharing songs and stories and joking with each other. This is also a big theme in stoires about the North and South, coming back to the idea of shared ethnic identity: you get Koreans together, and no matter which Koreans they are, they’ll be laughing and sharing in basically no time. Further, I feel like this scene (the drama as a whole, but this scene in particular) is a metaphor for hopes of reunification.

That’s really all for that, friends. Fewer establishing shots, so less for me to point out. See you next time~



Citations and Notes
01. I’m drawing specifically from Andre Schmid’s Korea Between Empires.

02. Tentatively recommending Suzy Kim’s Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution 1945-1950. I say tentatively because I love the intro but I haven’t read it all the way through since a friend needs to borrow it for a historiography seminar. Anyway, its main point is that, while most scholarship (particularly that of Suh Dae-Sook but also that of Andrei Lankov) emphasizes that the Soviets were running the show, they weren’t as involved the farther you got from the capital and Koreans were the ones really running the show. There’s also a chapter about women I’m going to read and maybe will edit this essay when I do.

03. I should note I’m taking all these from notes I took during a grad seminar on North Korea a few years ago. If you really care where I’m getting these, I guess I could ask my advisor? (even tho he’s still quite scary to me)

04. Suk-Young Kim, Illusive Utopia: Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea, pp.215-217.

05. Can I just have an aside here? I found a bunch of quotes I’d written down that my friends and professors had said, and one of them was my advisor’s: “So what does the Party do? What if it were a Par-tay? I think North Korea would be a lot more fun.” He has the best quotes and I just wanted to share that one. OK, thanks for listening. Back to the real story.

06. Ishmael would like me to mention that Kim Jong Il apparently saw Im Kwon Taek’s films as a potential for cinematic collaboration between North and South.

Ahab Watches “The King 2 Hearts”: Ep 1

Hello again, friends! As you may or may not be aware, I have a variety of interests and areas of expertise. In addition to sparkly boy (and some girl) bands from East Asia, I specialize in comparative colonialism between Korea and Ireland, and tourism in North Korea. And it’s the latter that I come to talk to you about today — North Korea itself, not tourism (though I could go on about that for hours (or 15 minutes if I’m at a conference and speak at lightning speed)). This is part of a larger series I want to do here where I watch a show or movie and talk about its portrayal of North Korea (DPRK). Let’s start with one that actually does a really good and decidedly human portrayal of the North: “The King 2 Hearts.” Really, I just wanna talk to y’all about the DPRK and about the things media portrayals do and don’t get right. We’ll proceed through each episode and discuss major themes: scenery and symbolism, ideology, portrayals of people, and relationships.

OK! So basic story is that we’re in an alternate universe where most everything is the same except that South Korea has a constitutional monarchy and there’s some World Officer Championship and the North and South are going to compete as one team for the first time. “The King 2 Hearts” is a story of people from two very different countries learning to work together *opens hands, reveals rainbow* :Db (OH MAN, DID I JUST MENTION NORTH KOREA AND A RAINBOW? TIME FOR MY FAVOURITE SONG: “통일 무지개 (Reunification Rainbow)”! This isn’t really about reunification, though; more about international cooperation.



Scenery and Symbolism

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What we see here is the representatives from the DPRK and Korea (we’ll get to that in a second) signing the papers to compete as one team. I like this cos it shows the symbol of the Korean Workers’ Party: the hammer, the sickle, and the writing brush. If we know anything about communism, we know all about the hammer and sickle (the industrialist and the peasant), but the neat thing about the DPRK’s is that it includes the writing brush to bring in the intellectual class and symbolize the “working intellectual.” So you keep the intellectual class in the Party because the goal is for everyone to join the Party (and, as we know, ain’t no party like a Pyongyang party cos a Pyongyang party is ABSOLUTELY MANDATORY) (These videos are exactly the kind of shit that’s going to get me in trouble one day. I’m going to be first against the wall and we all know it).

MOVING ON.

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AWWW YEAHHHH SOCIALIST REALISM Ahab loves her some socialist realism. There’s a good bit of propaganda, in posters and slogans, in the show. This is not just to make NoKo seem more ~weird~ or anything — there really are propaganda posters, murals, and slogans everywhere. Giant neon signs on top of buildings, too.

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One thing I really appreciate about this show is that they do a really good job of recreating places in the DPRK. This, for example. This is exactly what 승리 (Victory) Station (on the 철리마 (Ch’ŏllima/Thousand Li Horse) Line!) in Pyongyang looks like. I’ve been there!

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You can tell how legit and how high up in the Korean Worker’s Party someone is by the pin they have. I wish I could find where in my notes I had delineated the types and levels of pins. That aside, everyone in the KWP wears a certain pin on their left breast above the heart.



Ideology

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Our heroine in the story’s favourite hobby is rollin down the street smokin indo sippin on chuch’e juice (here’s the reference if you’re too young or lived under a rock in the 90s). That’s not true, I was just excited to see an actual mention of chuch’e1. See, a big part of why this drama is a big deal is because South Korea still has really strict laws on what can and can’t be said about North Korea. They’ve loosened over time, but they’re still there (Like, for serious, Ahab and Friends are still kind of shocked that SNL North Korea was a thing on SNL Korea. I’ll do a whole series on the North Korea-related SNL skits, but just keep in mind that this would have absolutely been unthinkable years ago. Satire hasn’t exactly been encouraged in South Korea).

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Kind of wish I had Korean subtitles for this just to prove my point. Anyway, our heroine is being interrogated by the South Korean side. She’s a soldier and has done some training of battalions that made the South Korean side … wary of her (people learned how to assassinate people with explosives. Fun stuff!). So the South Korean soldier (not pictured) is asking her about her actions in the military and she’s explaining herself and her past. He asks her if she’s met the South Korean team and she says she has met some of them. What you can’t hear is the words they’re using. If you didn’t know, North and South Korea use different words to refer to themselves and to the other. South Korea, which you’re probably most familiar with, uses “한국” (its formal name being 대한민국, Dae Han Min Guk, or “The Republic of Great Han”). Korean language is 한국어 (han’gukŏ) or 한국말 (han’gugkmal), Korean characters are 한글 (han’gŭl), Korean people are 한국 사람 (han’guk saram) (unless you’re part of the diaspora, but then that gets complicated and ventures further into identity and claims to nationality that are better handled by one of my cohort). It’s complicated, but both nations appeal to a previous era/dynasty in Korean history to legitimate themselves (and make itself more legitimate than the other). So South Korea uses the Three Hans Period and North Korea uses the Chosŏn dynasty. North Korea is 조선 and, more formally, 조선민주주의인민공화국 (Chosŏn Minjujuŭi Inmin Konghwaguk, “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”). Its people are 조선 사람 (chosŏn saram), its language is 조선말 (chosŏnmal), and the characters are 조선글 (chosŏngŭl). Make sense?

The South Korean officer asks her if she’s met the South Korean team, and he uses “남한” (namhan, literally “South Korea” (as opposed to 북한, bukhan, “North Korea”)) when he questions her. When she responds that she has met the South Korean team, she uses “남조선” (namchosŏn, literally “South Korea”). What we need to understand is that these are both correct from the point of view of the other. South Korea and North Korea, in their respective constitutions, claim jurisdiction over the entire peninsula. This is why North Korean refugees immediately have citizenship the second they set foot on South Korean soil and claim asylum. This is one of those things that’s really important but that you wouldn’t necessarily pick up on if you didn’t speak Korean and/or understand the peninsula’s histories.

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The officer explains that the spoiled little shit she met was the King’s little brother. When he does this, though, he uses “대한민국,” “Republic of Korea,” when earlier in the episode, when the representatives were signing the WOC paperwork, South Korea was just “Korea” while the DPRK was still the DPRK. This is weird to me and I want us to think about it. What does this say about the way South Korea thinks about itself in relation to North Korea? Also, is South Korea still a republic even with the monarchy? And what about people in the colonial era losing complete faith in the monarchy, feeling like they sold the country out to the Japanese? Are we just gonna forget how the Japanese made the last Korean prince a prince in their imperial line? (What up, naisen ittai (内鮮一体), the ideology that Japan and Korea were one, wherein Korea was a more primitive version of Japan and needed Japan’s help to modernize and join the rest of the world and it was just oh so complicated and problematic we could spend an entire semester talking about just how fucked up and unfathomably insidious it was).

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OH, speaking of the Japanese monarchy! This is one of those things that’s what I like to call “Bruce Cumings correct” (it’s not entirely wrong but it sure as shit isn’t 100% right). So uh, dear reader, here’s the thing: Emperor Hirohito, in surrendering in World War II, renounced his divinity. So uh, this isn’t really right. Also, no one in Japan really gives a shit about the Emperor anymore (unless it’s time for a new heir, and then it’s time to get up in arms about primogeniture and drive Princess Masako insane because it’s obviously her fault she can’t produce a son and not Naruhito’s!). But really, this just raises more questions than it answers. What’s the history of this alternate universe? If there’s still a monarchy, does that mean Yi Un never abdicated? This is getting to be some weird shit (though not as weird as “Lost Memories 2009,” wherein Ito Hirobumi was never assassinated and then Seoul became Japan’s third-largest city and Japan never surrendered in World War II and so never lost its empire and then some other shit went down and one of the main characters is an investigator named Sakamoto Masayuki hahahahaAHAHAHAHA I am trash). This may seem like a tangent, but it will be relevant later, I promise.



Portrayals of People and Relationships

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Our heroine here, Kim Hang Ah, after kicking a dude’s ass in a competition, is going on a date. Like a real person. With a real life. You might be looking at me skeptically like “well of fucking course” but the way the media across the globe portrays NoKo, you’d think it was populated by brainwashed automatons. And I know this a drama, but there’s still regular people (people who are very high up in the Party and thereby very privileged (the closer you are to Pyongyang, the more privileged you are, bee tee dubs)) in the DPRK and they have real lives and they go on dates! My guide told us they go to cafes and things ~just like us!~. No but really. Her friends give her shit for not taking good care of her skin and tell her to be bolder with the guy she’s seeing cos she may not find another guy and she’s getting too old. WOW JUST LIKE A PERSON IN SOKO. Hello, my name is Ahab and I’m tiring of having to explain to people that North Koreans are actual people (and not just starving people)2.

What’s most interesting about our protagonist here is that she’s a military officer. She kicks a lot of ass (in fact, in the first scene where we meet her, she’s about to go kick some ass). More than just that, though, she’s fully cognizant of the way she’s seen as intimidating, both domestically and internationally. But she doesn’t want to be seen as just an ass-kicking woman, she wants to be seen as the complex woman with feelings and dreams that she is. Aside from international cooperation, a major plot point is her superior finding her a spouse.

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So our team has arrived by bus in the South (probably coming down through Kaesong and Dorasan into Seoul, if the road signs are to be believed). Kim Hang Ah is marvelling at the idols who also happen to be in the military (militarized modernity~) and this is interesting and I want us to talk about it. South Korean pop culture has been making its way through North Korea for many years, first on illegal CDs or DVDs, now on USB drives. As we find out later, our heroine is a spy and watches South Korean TV and reports on what’s going on and what’s being said and all that. As an elite, she has more access to a lot of things, and because of her job, she knows a lot of what’s going on in the South.

Back to the story: there’s a radio broadcast on in the background in which the UN is said to have congratulated the North and South on competing together as one team in the WOC. There have been a few times when they’ve tried before in real life, the first of which that comes to mind is the Seoul Olympics of 88. When Seoul got the Olympics, the North was like “bro” and asked to co-host it with SoKo. The IOC agreed to give the DPRK a few events like cycling, but NoKo was like “no, we go halfsies or we don’t go at all” so the IOC was like “have it your way” and they didn’t go at all. And then the North decided to host the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in response (retaliation?) but it … didn’t go well. Also, fun fact: the Ryugyong Hotel? You know, that giant concrete (now glass (thanks, Orascom!)) monolith in the middle of Pyongyang? It was set to open and host people for the sporting event but it wasn’t structurally sound3. It still isn’t suitable for habitation now, either. Orascom joined with the North to improve their cell phone infrastructure (yes, they have mobile phones in NoKo) and try to get the whole thing ready to host tourists like it’s supposed to for Juche 100 (2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth (the DPRK has something of an imperial numbering system beginning with Juche 1 in 1912)) but could only complete the facade.

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First, yes, North Koreans use “Comrade” to address people. There are actually two ways to do so: the word Kim Hang Ah uses to address Lee Jae Ha (our spoiled prince character, whose character we’ll return to later): 동지 (tongji), usually for people on your same social level or below you, and 동무 (tongmu) for people above you. Manners of address are important.

So, Lee Jae Ha. He’s our playboy prince character who, if we were to read into it really hard (and what else do we do on here other than overanalyze?) could be said to represent the decadence of the youth. Dude is 30 in the drama, so we’re of the same generation. I’ll leave the hardcore discussions of portrayals and denigration and fear of the youth to Ishmael, but suffice it to say that the youth of the post IMF Crisis generation are seen as lazier and more concerned with consumption for consumption’s sake. He’s not a total scumbag, but that’s like saying it’s only a small tapeworm eating its way through your insides; at the end of the day, you’ve still got a tapeworm and he’s still a douchebag.



Analysis

I am cautiously optimistic but have high hopes for this drama. The episodes I’ve watched so far are painting, as I said, a decidedly human portrait of North Korea and the people who live there. Yes, they’re elites in the military (who have been more important in the DPRK since the advent of 선근 (sŏn’gun), military first (rather than Equal Emphasis, which put, funnily enough, equal emphasis on domestic growth and arms production beginning in December 1962, leading to a 7-fold increase in military spending. “Arms in one hand and a hammer and sickle in the other!”))4 but they’re still people (!) and they still have lives and feelings and are complicated people just like everyone else (!).



Citations and Notes

Note for all these posts: I’m the last person who’d call herself an expert on North Korea (and it still weirds me out that I got cited as a source one time in a news article about NoKo (really, how did they find me? Did my adviser tell them to talk to me? Does he secretly have more faith in me than I thought? The world may never know)). I’m still learning, and I will have a lot to learn as I move into my chosen career. That said, I have been studying about North Korea for years, both in and out of grad school. I know a (not insignificant) number of people who do work related to North Korea (academics, consultants (security, engagement, etc.), refugee resettlement, etc.). The North Korean government comes to the people I know for advice. I’ve spent some time there where I met and spoke with a few people. In all likelihood, I’ll be spending more time there in the future. I was all set to write for NKNews but decided not to since I didn’t want to jeopardize my career path by being branded a journalist. Long story short: I don’t know near as much as some people, but the odds are really good that I know more than you. You’re free to critique my conclusions, but unless you’re a better source, don’t critique my credentials.

01. Oh, for the record, the show and I use very different romanization systems. I use McCune-Reischauer because I’ve had it beaten into my head over a number of years in grad school and the subbers use the Ministry of Education’s system. I like mine better, so I will continue to use it.

02. That’s not to say the ration system has recovered or that there isn’t a food shortage but SERIOUSLY the way people talk about the DPRK it’s like they think everyone is those tiny children during the famine in the mid-90s searching for grains of rice on the ground in the beginning of the documentary, “Children of the Secret State.” Seriously, I’ll be the first to tell you the DPRK is complicated (just look at how many tangents I’m going on here) and that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows and I could easily detail for you a great many of the No Good, Very Bad Things that happen there, but what I’m trying to say here is that we need to be aware that it’s not just lack of food, gulags, nuclear weapons, and furious political thought. I’m really doing my best to not be all Bruce Cumings here (I’m not doing a very good job, am I?).

03. Bradley K. Martin writes about this as one of his experiences in North Korea in Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader

04. Buzo, Adrian. Guerilla Dynasty: Politics and Leadership in North Korea