Ahab Watches “The King 2 Hearts”: Eps 3 & 4

Long time, no see, friends! Let’s get back to our story: that of Lee Jae Ha’s journey toward being a decent human being and functioning member of society. He’s got a long way to go, just FYI. How far? That’s the subject of today’s entry.


He toys with people’s feelings and then acts confused when they get upset! In this scene, he had leaned close to Kim Hang Ah as she drifted off to sleep and then belittled her about her fears of what had happened between the two of them during the night (they’re roommates for the WOC, you see). And then he told her her hand was just a hand and she’s not a woman and then was confused when she cried and ran out of the room. Truly an upstanding citizen, this one.

This is a story I like to call “Why I Love Ri Kang Seok” and it dovetails with “Lee Jae Ha is a Total Dick.” Let’s start off with some background about our beloved Comrade Ri. He’s an exemplary soldier who believes in the teachings of the Dear Leader and the General with all his heart. He actually is a fine, upstanding citizen, and his characterization and growth is one of the reasons I got into watch this drama in the first place.

When he first rolls into South Korea, he sees a giant TV on a building advertising SNSD. He derides them but


can’t bring himself to turn off the TV. He’s ashamed of himself and runs out of the room before Lee Jae Ha can catch him watching a video for “Genie.”


He confides in Kim Hang Ah, telling her how they’re driving him insane. He can’t stop thinking about them, and no amount of studying political science or thinking about the words/works of the Dear Leader can get them out of his head. What kind of a name is Tiffany? Why is he infatuated with a girl with a rotten American name like that? Clearly, he’s broken up about this. Kim Hang Ah tries to comfort him by saying it’s natural to be attracted to pretty girls, to which he responds that they have no ideology, no standards; just looks, and is he an animal in heat who can’t control himself? Poor dear Comrade 🙁

Back to Lee Jae Ha. For Kang Seok’s birthday, he plays a ~super funny hilarious prank~ on Kang Seok by buying a laptop and saying it’s from one of the other soldiers (his rival, for lack of a better word), Shi Kyung. On the laptop is an SNSD video subtitled with an absolutely dickish letter. Here’s a highlight:


Ah, yes, my favourite kind of discourse: that of civilized vs. barbaric (which you can find in everything. Try it! You’ll hate it!) Here it’s obviously explicit and both Comrade Ri and I are completely pissed off about it (for slightly different reasons, I’m sure). I’m pissed off about it because this is exactly how North Korea is always characterized: a nation lost in time, a relic of the Cold War, a Stalinist state stuck in a time slip. It’s uncivilized, its people are barely better than barbarians (its poor, starving, brainwashed people), and it needs the globalized, super modern world to come and bring it into the modern world and civilize it. Obviously, there are Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Things happening in the country, but, as you’re probably sick of hearing me say by now, reducing people to their suffering or characterizing them as brainwashed automatons is reductionist and strips away their humanity. Lee Jae Ha here, by saying everyone will soon absorb the obviously superior culture of the South is engaging in that same toxic civilizing discourse we’ve dealt with for fucking centuries. Further, he’s just being a complete and total fuckboy and deserves, at the very least, a good punch in the dick.

When Comrade Ri doesn’t lash out at Shi Kyung, Jae Ha is almost apoplectic. He then decides to try and be more ~devious~ (spoiler alert: he’s going to fail miserably) and try to push Kang Seok’s buttons and get him to react (and by react, he means fight LIKE A MAN BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT MEN DO, BRUH, YEAH *crushes beer can on forehead*)


Ri Kang Seok is having none of it. He can tell it’s Lee Jae Ha because he has basic reasoning skills and knows who knows about his secret. Further, he’s absolutely not here for Jae Ha’s fuckery, laughing at his very real dilemma. The last line, “do you know how important Communism is to me?” Oh god, my feelings. He’s very clearly struggling with feeling contaminated by empty, bourgeoisie culture — a culture he’s fought against and learned his entire life — and here’s this fuckboy laughing at him. This is why I love his characterization: there’s actual character development and growth. He’s struggling, not just with Lee Jae Ha’s fuckery, but with himself and with the ideology he’s been taught his entire life.

Lee Jae Ha, in one of his rare moments of humanity, is actually moved by Kang Seok’s struggle (with some minor intervention by Shi Kyung)


and he actually apologizes. Good work, Jae Ha. I have hope that someday you’ll be able to join society and be a less horrid person to have around.

As an aside,



I want to geek out about some details here. So when Kang Seok gets the laptop, the other dude who’s with him whose name I never remember comments about how they actually use Windows in the South and how the North’s systems all run off Linux. Yay, bits of knowledge! I studied the tech industry for a bit and it’s super fascinating. So as a way to keep the North from developing the technology that would lead to them manufacturing nuclear weapons and for other military purposes, the Wasenaar Agreement mandates that no one can import certain technology systems in, and that includes Windows. Everything the North has developed, including its tablet, Samjiyon, and its intranet (note I didn’t say Internet, though some companies do have it) network, Kwangmyong, are all developed off Linux. There’s been a definitive emphasis on science and technology as a way to improve North Korean society and its economy and stuff since the late 1990s (well, since always, but now it’s focused on computers and the like).

Thanks for coming with me on that. I’ll see you in the second half of episode 4, where shit starts to get certifiably Real.

How to Talk About North Korea Without Being or Making an Ass of Yourself

So, here’s the thing: the DPRK is sort of difficult to understand. We don’t always get what we might call accurate information out of the country. Most of what we get comes from interpretations of the propaganda/state-run media reports or from a dude who knows another dude who told them x, y, z. It’s sometimes hard to sniff out the bullshit. People tend to think that just because it’s difficult to understand what goes on in and the motivations behind decisions made by the North Korean regime that almost anything could happen. For example: that story about every man in North Korea needing to have the same haircut as Kim Jong Un. That sounds like a thing that could happen if you operate under the assumption that literally anything is possible in North Korea because North Korea is crazy and that’s just the sort of thing they’d do. Except it’s not. Come, friend, let me give you a history of the North and then help you understand how to be more critical in your readings about the North.

First things first: North Korea is not crazy. Its people are not crazy, its leaders are not crazy, its bureaucracy is not crazy. Let’s just stop using “crazy” to describe things we can’t immediately comprehend, okay? North Korea is a rational actor. When you actually consider the motives behind the decisions those in power make, and the context in which the country develops and continues to survive, you’ll find they actually make sense (shock! gasp!). The thing with that, though, is that you have to really understand how North Korea came into existence and how it’s maintained itself. If you don’t really get that, it’s basically a given you’ll fall right into the “North Korea is crazy!!!11!!1” analytic method (which isn’t an analytic method). If you call North Korea crazy or imply they’re not a rational actor, I’m basically not listening to you anymore, and neither is anyone else who has any idea what they’re talking about when it comes to North Korea.

If you need a brief history of North Korea, here are my notes on the first 20 years of the DPRK’s existence. Nothing here that isn’t also available on Wikipedia but if you need a quicker list, here’s some major events and concepts. Please don’t repost them without permission (the watermark is there for a reason, you moochers):

notes01_sm notes02_sm notes03_sm notes04_sm notes05_sm

I didn’t make a cheat sheet for the final exam, so you’re going to have to deal with me and my, shall we say, unconventional narration methods.

So, we’re all clear that KJI came to power in the late 60s, had his rise through the 70s, and in the 80s, began taking over more operations. His succession was portrayed as a necessity to propagate the idea of a revolutionary generation.

During the 50s, North Korea looked like best Korea: people had jobs, they were eating, they were clothed. Meanwhile, the South was super duper mega fucked. But the thing with the North was that in the 50s, Juche started to be a thing. It was defined more fully and enshrined in the 1972 Constitution, but it started being a thing before then. So North Korea developed out of colonialism and the Cold War and the two superpowers were snatching countries into their spheres of influence. COMECON (or the USSR’s Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) was a thing and a thing that basically used the Soviet Bloc and associated countries to help the USSR get resources. North Korea never fully joined it because the North was like “we need to handle our own shit because did you see what the fuck the Japanese did when they ran the place. No thank you.” The DPRK got a lot of things, especially petroleum, at “friendship prices” but was never fully a part of COMECON. The North Korean economy ran on and still runs (to whatever extent it actually runs now) on a Soviet-style system of collectivization. Factories and farmland and stuff are all owned by the state. Small businesses are allowed but only with a certain number of employees and only in certain industries. People are allowed small veggie farms and to raise like, rabbits, but they’re only allowed a certain size for the plot (usually in their backyard or up on a steep slope (we’ll get to that later)); the rest is for the state. The major problem with this is that the majority of arable land is in the south of the peninsula, not the north. The south was the breadbasket for the Empire, and the north is where the Japanese put most of the factories, and this is why the North seemed to be coming out ahead in the 50s and part of the 60s (that and, again, the South got fucked in the Korean War). Shortfalls of this system started to become apparent in the 60s, and by the 70s, the North was importing turnkey factories (they’re exactly what they sound like: you import everything to make the factory run and basically all you have to do is turn the key).

OK, so turnkey factories were a thing, but the North, relying on juche and not wanting to open up to have capitalist companies and states fuck them over, refused to open up past a certain point and basically didn’t pay back their loans for the industrial equipment and defaulted on all their loans in the 80s. Defaulting on their loans to other countries means they, to this day, can’t borrow money and have to pay for every single thing in cash. This is why you have North Koreans overseas hustling for hard cash, and also the increase in tourism in the last 5 years (though it’s been a thing since Koryo Tours began in 1993), because the regime needs hard cash for stuff.

Collectivized ag and a refusal to open to the corrupting influence of capitalism, in addition to an over-reliance on science meant that things started to go downhill in the 70s. Let’s talk irrigation. Most of the time, you let gravity do the work when you want to irrigate the land: you find a water source above your farm, and then you put your pipes and stuff in and you let gravity do the work to bring your water to the land. That’s not how things work in North Korea. People in the 50s were like “man, science rules, what if we used SCIENCE to get water to the farms?” and so decided they would tap into creeks and other water sources that may have been below the farm and then use fuel pumps to funnel the water back uphill to the farm. This sounds really cool because SCIENCE only it doesn’t work when you start to run low on fuel. Remember those friendship prices I mentioned? Russia and the DPRK stopped being so friendly as the Cold War came to an end, and Russia began running lower on fuel, and also when the USSR normalized relations with the South (which gave legitimacy to the ROK state, a thing the DPRK did not like its allies to do (basically, to the DPRK, the ROK is a puppet state of the US and imperialism and all that)). So, friendship started to run cold with one of its main allies. At the same time, because they used chemical fertilizers to fertilize the land, the land began to be deprived of its humus. Basically, the land stopped producing so much because fields can never lie fallow in the DPRK because they need every bit of arable land to produce food to distribute through the rationing system. In the 80s and 90s, they were basically spending more money producing fertilizer to fertilize the land than they were getting back in food from it. So the soil started to turn really red because that’s what happens when soil is depleted of its organic matter, basically. During the 80s, you have campaigns for “let’s eat two meals a day” and to get mothers to put brown rice in their kids’ lunch and etc. Up through the 80s, you weren’t doing so bad if you were a North Korean, but beginning in the 80s and beyond, shit hit the fan.

Steep-slope farming became a thing because people needed arable land for farming, so KJI encouraged people to go up into the hills and mountains and use the land there. The problem with this is that the lack of trees and other vegetation to block the rains when they come meant that when heavy monsoons came through in the early-mid 90s, there was little to stop them from devastating towns and cities. After this, we have the famine, the first real wave of refugees (people just really didn’t leave the DPRK before this), and we’re all pretty familiar with what happens after this, yeah?

So the thing I need you all to take away from this is that the DPRK does not want to open up to the corrupting influence of capitalism. Those in power see the way the US treats other countries around the world and sees a very real threat to its existence, particularly when the US and ROK military do war games exercises. And while I’m here, North Korean people are not brainwashed automatons, and the extent to which people believe the propaganda can vary from person to person. And while the North does absolutely function on a system of having everyone spying on one another, the people there are still people.

Now, how do we talk about North Korea without being assholes? Well, apparently that’s a really difficult thing for a lot of people to do, but it’s really not that hard, I promise!

  • North Korea is not crazy. Just. Stop. In order to maintain sovereignty, the North Korean regime uses threats and belligerence to keep itself in power. The people in power are not stupid: they know they would lose in an all-out war with South Korea, the US, possibly Japan, and other allies. These threats and acts of violence serve a purpose, usually a domestic propaganda purpose. Nuclear weapons are a way to guarantee a stalemate and ensure the country can continue to exist. There’s a reason for everything and if you took five minutes, you’d be able to figure it out.
  • North Korea is not funny. Famine isn’t funny, jokes about labour camps aren’t funny. Someone showed me an article on Cracked recently where they were trying to be more serious in their reporting that referred to NoKo as the Kims’ “murderous Disney World.” Like. Can you not.
  • Five minutes with a history book and a critical eye before you mouth off about Korea, please. Ishmael and Ahab maintain that Bruce Cumings is pretty much the worst Korea Studies has to offer, but even his book would give you a decent perspective on the history of the peninsula. Not a great one, but better than you probably received in school. Ahab will be adding recommended reading on North Korea soon.
  • Understand that the US is far from blameless in all of this. The US happily supported brutal dictators in South Korea for decades because it served our ~economic and political interests~. The US is not a shining beacon, a city on a hill. We’re an example for the rest of the world, but not always a good one (in case you forgot, our government tortures people then tries to say it wasn’t ~real~ torture! Our police are basically unaccountable for their actions! AMERICA, FUCK YEAH!)
  • Regime change is difficult (understatement of the century). Military force may bring about regime change, but then who’s gonna be there to rebuild the country and help all the North Korean people adjust to life in late capitalism? How would a confederacy work if both governments were to agree on it? There’s a reason there are a bunch of institutes that study how regime change could happen (hint: it’s not because it’s easy!). I remember years ago when I was first beginning to actually study Korean history and politics, conventional wisdom was that a million people would die just on day 1 if the US and its allies went to war with North Korea. A MILLION. There’s seriously no fucking easy solution here and if you honestly think there is, you aren’t paying attention.
  • Stop making blanket statements. We can get a clearer picture of life in North Korea (and we have) from defector testimony, and we can generalize certain things but not others. We will honestly never know what “all North Koreans” think. Some believe the propaganda, some don’t; some question, some don’t. This is where being critical and having a variety of opinions and perspectives comes in handy.

tl;dr: The North Korean regime is the actual worst but we can all be a lot better in how we think and talk about it. Remember also that whatever happens in North Korea, it also has the potential to/does have a huge effect on the rest of the region, particularly South Korea, but also China and Japan. The situation on the peninsula did not develop overnight and it won’t be solved overnight. There are no easy solutions. Please try to be more critical. Please just try to be less of an asshole. Remember also that I am not The Expert on North Korea. There are a lot of differing opinions out there and I am but one person shouting into the void that is the Internet, but I hope you’ll take the time to learn to be more critical in your readings on and discussions and about North Korea. OK, thanks for stopping by, drive safe!

. Notes and Citations .
In general, I’m drawing mostly from Adrian Buzo’s Guerrilla Dynasty, things I’ve just picked up from grad readings on North Korea, and my class notes from my grad class on North Korea.

K-pop For People Who Don’t Like K-pop: an Ishmael and Ahab Collaboration

I’ll come right out and say it: I’m a K-pop hipster. I was probably disillusioned with K-pop before your favourite even joined their agency. I’ve been here, off and on, for about 9 years now. In that time, I’ve seen K-pop go through a lot of changes, both musically and in terms of how the industry functions, seen hallyu’s ebbs and flows (HA HA GET IT SEE WHAT I DID THERE). I came in right when Big Bang was hitting their big break with “Lies” and I’ve been here ever since (though mostly on the periphery since about 2009). Even still, I’m still here and I still have a lot of love for Korean popular music. And it makes me a little sad when I hear people write off the entire genre and say they just don’t like it. Odds are, you just haven’t found an artist you like (she stubbornly proclaimed from atop her high horse, convinced she’s right).

With that in mind, I decided to make a mix and of course roped Ishmael in with me. I tried to pick a diverse mix of things, from the songs that got me into Korean pop in the first place to the stuff that piqued my interest in recent years and reminded me why I started loving K-pop in the first place. I want to include explanations for each song, but I don’t want to colour your perceptions. Give each song a listen (and I mean the whole way through). If you don’t like it, that’s fine; we both gave it the old college try. But if you find even one song and/or artist on here that you like, I’ll have done my job. You’ll also notice some surprise appearances from some familiar names on here.


Side A: Ahab

01. Alex – 깍지껴요 (feat. Gaeko from Dynamic Duo)
02. ANYBAND (BoA, Junsu from DBSK, Tablo from Epik High, Jin Bora) – Promise You
03. BEAST – Break Down
04. Big Bang – OH MY FRIEND
05. Big Bang – 마지막 인사
06. BoA – Milky Way
07. BoA – One Wings ~Embracing Each Other~
08. Brown Eyed Girls – Abracadabra
09. Busker Busker – 벚꽃 엔딩
10. DJ Clazzi – 우리 변한거잖아 (With 임슬옹 Of 2AM)
11. Clazziquai – Love Mode (feat. Tablo)
12. Clazziquai – Cry Out Loud
13. Daybreak – HOT FRESH
14. DBSK – Wrong Number
15. Epik High – Fly
16. Epik High – Still Life
17. Epik High – Umbrella (feat. Younha)
18. G.O.D. – 난 너에게
19. G-Dragon – She’s Gone
20. Girls’ Generation – Girls’ Generation
21. Girls’ Generation – Into the New World (Remix)
22. Glen Check – ’84
23. Jay Park – JOAH
24. Jay Park – So Good
25. Jinusean – Tonight (feat. Kim Ji Eun)
26. Jinusean – Good Time (feat. Wheesung)
27. Kim Hyun Jung – 떠난 너
28. Lena Park – 치카치카
29. Lexy – Touch Me
30. m-flo – I’M DA 1 (m-flo loves Wheesung)
31. m-flo – Love Me After 12AM (m-flo loves Alex)
32. Mighty Mouth – 나쁜놈(feat. Soya)
33. Rain – How to Avoid the Sun (Guitar Remix)
34. Roy Kim – 봄봄봄
35. Roy Kim – Love Love Love
36. SE7EN – Baby I Like You Like That
37. SE7EN – You’re My Everything
38. Seo Taiji – Moai
39. Seo Taiji – 소격동
40. SHINee – 사랑의 길
41. Taeyang – Make Love (feat. Kush)
42. Taeyang – Love You To Death
43. THE KOXX – 사랑춤
44. THE KOXX – 12:00
45. Ulala Session – 아름다운 밤
46. V6 – LET’S SING A SONG (feat. Shoo of S.E.S.) (Korean version)
47. VIXX – Say U Say Me
48. Wheesung – Insomnia
49. Wheesung – 안 되나요
50. Wheesung – 사랑은 맛있다
51. Wonder Girls – Saying I Love You
52. Wonder Girls – Tell Me (Rap Version)

Ishmael will have their side of the mix up next week when they stop slacking finish their actual classwork.

Living With Affect: A Memoir


My name is Ahab and I’ve been living with affect off and on for about 25 years now (hi, Ahab!). From my days as a New Kids on the Block stan (yes, little five year old me stanned the shit out of NKOTB), to my years trying to balance my love for both 90s boy and girl idols/idol groups and heavy metal bands (meaning one day I would be screaming my head off at a BSB concert and the next, meeting Static-X (RIP, Wayne Static)), to my migration to and subsequent obsession with Korean and Japanese (and some Chinese) pop music, I’ve basically spent my entire life as a hopeless fangirl. I’ve got years of experience behind me and I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about both the lived aspects of affect and what it means to bridge the gap between oneself and one’s idols. How does one deal with the knowledge that one’s idol’s image is carefully crafted and controlled, to varying degrees, by a semi-faceless corporation, with the very real feelings one feels when listening to their idols’ songs or seeing them smile or cry? Come with Ahab on this journey — because that’s never gone wrong for anyone ever.

When I talk about affect, I’m talking about Gabriela Lukacs’s idea that idols become image commodities wherein their value lies in the circulation of their images. Further,

“The tarento and the intimate televisuality their circulation generates managed to revive and maintain viewers’ interest in the televisual medium in the 1990s. In other words, by simply watching any particular program, viewers were able to tap into the complete participatory experience of Japanese televisual culture and its network of information on cultural and consumer trends. Decoding and enjoying programs in their intertextual contexts requires intensive and regular participation. As encoding becomes ever more sophisticated, decoding requires greater and greater exposure and “training.” By way of the encoding-decoding game, television is becoming increasingly indispensable for rendering social realities intelligible and human relationships meaningful in contemporary Japan.”

Basically, it’s a fancy way of saying that we get sucked into this life like a black hole: we want to know more about the idols and wouldn’t you know it, there’s just so much out there waiting to be discovered. As long as the idols keep working and putting out new material (songs, television appearances, movies, magazine appearances, etc etc etc), we’ll never run out of things to learn. Ishmael has talked at length about how this is done in K-pop, and I think if you’re here, you can figure out the similarities and differences between K-pop and J-pop in manufacturing idol personas. I’m also glossing over the fact that there are distinct differences between entertainment companies and management companies in how information about the idols is presented. As any Johnny’s fan knows, they’re not allowed to have their images out on the internet, which makes it sort of a pain when you’re going to buy a magazine or you want to watch the preview for the new PV and you can totally do it for, say, BoA, but not V6, even though they’re both under Avex, so you’re left to informal networks (I could spend a week talking about gatekeeping and access to information and information networks, but that’s not the point here right now). With the right language skills and access to information, however (or access to a/a set of reliable translator(s)), one can gather information about their idols, order the information and add it to what they already know, reformulate opinions, lather, rinse, and repeat. Growing up, I could go out and buy magazines like Tiger Beat and plaster my room with pictures of Jonathan Taylor Thomas or Devon Sawa or all of the Backstreet Boys/N*SYNC, etc. Now, I can (do) do that with J&A artists. As Ishmael pointed out, this gathering of information and feeling of closeness to one’s idols fuels financial investment. In essence, the more one learns about one’s idols, the closer one is, and thus, the more real the relationship.

I’ve written at some length before about distance and the bridging of the gap, but how does it work in practice? If one bridges the gap, what does one stand to find? Well, their idol could be a human being with regular faults like anyone else, or they could have their opinion of them reinforced, whether through the idol’s actions or the fan’s own perception of the encounter (in my experience, it’s both). How does place affect encounters? This isn’t merely an exercise in self-congratulation or bragging; rather, I want to use my own myriad experiences to try to elucidate how fans experience these encounters with their idols. Too often, writers (academics and journalists) discount just how real and meaningful these encounters are to fans. To do so would validate the experiences, as we will discuss later (and as I have discussed elsewhere before), which would in turn validate that pop music and fandom are both legitimate and meaningful. There is a broad cultural (I would even argue global) perception that pop music and the fandom surrounding it are things that only teen girls do and are thus not worthy of attention or simply things to be derided. There was a great article on Groupthink a while back that addressed how the media derides teenage girls and the things they love (in this case, boy bands), though I remember being made fun of quite a bit in a lot of venues for being an enthusiastic teenage girl who really liked a certain band (pop, rock, metal; you name it, there was a dude out there ready, willing, and able to be a dick to me about my tastes). Again, as Ishmael stated and as I’ve talked about before, boy bands/pop music/love of celebrities are things that one is supposed to grow out of. The tastes of women and girls are not to be taken seriously so no one actually wants to talk about lived experiences, or if they do, it’s rare to find that these feelings are validated. Jennifer Robertson’s book on Takarazuka and its fandom did a beautiful job of not only analyzing the interactions fans have with their idols and their feelings about them, but treated them as they should be treated: as real, as meaningful. All that having been said, let’s get to actual analyzing.

Private Consumption

Private consumption of information is something I would like to talk more about later, but it’s usually the first step in manufacturing this closeness between idol and fan. Hearing a song and wanting to hear more, watching a TV show and thinking they’re hilarious and wanting to see more, seeing them on a magazine cover or in an ad and thinking they’re just about the most gorgeous being to ever exist on this planet; these are some of the ways fans get interested. Thanks to the internet, fans from all over the world can seek out information on their chosen idol, whether it’s Harry Styles or Matsumoto Jun. From there, the fan takes information acquisition into their own hands. In essence, they’re only limited by what they can acquire and how much they can understand. They can remain a casual fan — listening to all the artists’ albums, sometimes watching shows they’re on — or they can become a hardcore fan — consuming everything available to them, interacting with other fans to share information. Fandom is, I believe, a spectrum, and where one lies on it is entirely up to the fan. To use myself as an example: I’m more on the casual end of the spectrum with TOKIO and, while I know quite a bit about them, watch their shows from time to time, and regularly listen to their albums, I didn’t feel I knew them well enough to go see them on their 2012 tour even though I really wanted to, and that if I went, I may be taking a spot from someone who enjoys them a lot more than I and who would enjoy the show more. (Maybe this is also a time when we should talk about how, the more a fan knows, and the more time one invests, the more one feels like they deserve something? Or is that just me because at my worst, I’m incredibly selfish and possessive? Just me? OK *slinks away*) (The flip side of this, which I haven’t addressed, is that there’s a feeling of indebtedness to one’s idol that also fuels consumption: for all the idol has done for them, or for all the things they’ve obtained on the DL, the fan owes something to the idol and thus the buying of merchandise, going to concerts, etc)


Ah, the concert. Concerts are one of the main places in which fans get to see their idols in person and potentially interact with them. I’ve only been to one K-pop concert, so I don’t feel I can really speak to it as much, but at least at the Johnny’s shows I’ve been to and the many other ones I’ve watched, most groups do their best to get as close to as much of the audience as possible. Matsujun came up with the idea for the moving stage to get close to more of the audience and give them more of a chance to see and interact with Arashi, and now many other groups use that in their shows. V6 have the walkway around the upper level of Yoyogi so they can get as close to the entire audience in what is a huge venue. As groups go around the venue, fans are given a chance to have their idols wave, smile, give the peace sign, high-five them, etc etc etc. Being close to the walkways can get you attention. Having an uchiwa for your favourite(s) can get you noticed. Having a funny uchiwa can get you attention and get you remembered (remember the time Koyama talked about how he once saw an uchiwa that just said “ramen” on it?), even just in the short term. I’m about 95% sure Sakamoto waved at me the second night I went to V6’s concert because he remembered my face because I had a funny uchiwa the night before.


I spent days thinking of what would be funny and memorable, because I had no idea if/when I’d be able to see V6 again after that. He purposely stopped, leaned down, waved, and smiled at me on his way back to the main stage, at least in part because he thought my uchiwa was funny (how many other fans have asked him to go drinking?). This is an instance in which my breadth of knowledge paid off (in addition to being white and blonde and super conspicuous, let’s not ignore that, it’s a huge part of it): by using what I know about him and his hobbies, I was able to use that knowledge to make him laugh and in turn, get noticed.

These interactions are incredibly meaningful for fans. It’s a way of getting recognition for the hours (or at least money, in the case of those who go to shops to get theirs made) they put in not only in construction of their uchiwa but also in their dedication to the group. There’s a feeling of being special: out of many, they saw/waved at/touched me! There’s also the potential for disappointment if one doesn’t get seen, but that, too, can be explained away: my seats were too far away, the fan in front of me was too tall, etc.

Idols regularly talk about how concerts are places where they can get close to fans and show their appreciation for all the time and effort fans put in to supporting them, and how they want to put on the best show they can every single time because this may be the only time a fan gets to see them, or because they know that concerts are places where fans can get away from all their worries for at least a couple of hours. Because their entire career depends on fans, from the casual to the crazed like me, idols seem to be some of the only public figures who will acknowledge that fans are the entire reason they get to do what they do, and they don’t deride or denigrate fans for it (unless they step outside the boundaries of what is acceptable, e.g. going to houses, etc). In the 2011 tour pamphlet, Inohara talked about how they talk about fans backstage: such and such fan was crying, did you see such and such fan, etc. By reading these pamphlets (in Japanese or in translation), fans can (re)affirm their hopes that one day their idols will notice and/or talk about them. This is a carefully crafted move on their part (I’m not saying I don’t believe they don’t talk about fans backstage, but). In essence, if a fan puts in the work, they will get a reward for their hard work: out of hundreds of other fans, they can get noticed and receive the attention of those after whom they have pined.

Fan Meetings

Meeting their idol(s) and wanting to tell them thank you for all the joy and support they’ve gotten from them is a thing I hear quite often from my friends. I’ve had friends learn Japanese just so they could one day say thank you to their idol(s), even if it was just a simple “thank you.” Fan meetings are a place where fans can do that. I get this feeling, I really do. Outside of the personal encounter, it’s about as close as a fan can really get to their idol, and might be their only chance to have their feelings directly returned to them. They may send letters, but there’s little way of knowing if it was ever read (except in the case of radio shows where fans do get their letters/questions read on air, but not all fans or letters can be or are read).


The thing I noticed most when I met NEWS in 2012 was how emotional other fans got. I even cried a bit when they sang “Full Swing” because you’re a fucking heartless monster if you don’t DO YOU KNOW WHAT THEY’VE BEEN THROUGH. For the fan who gets to meet their idol, shake their hands, and share their feelings, there’s, again, a feeling of reward coupled with pure gratefulness. I’ve talked about this elsewhere before, but pop music is a meaningful escape for a lot of people. I say meaningful escape because it’s not just a way to escape worries and whatever else but it’s also something into which a fan invests their time, effort, and most importantly, their emotions.

Idols, as well, talk about how they want to say thank you to their fans. After playing games and taking fan club pamphlet pictures, everyone in NEWS talked about how they felt terrible for having made their fans wait so much, and how grateful they were to the fans who stayed around to support them through their hard times. Essentially, the least they could do to say thank you would be to meet the fans face-to-face, shake their hands, and exchange feelings. For someone like me who’s been a (at times quite impatient) supporter through the myriad lineup changes they’ve gone through, it was an incredible opportunity to have the chance to tell them I basically came all the way from the United States just to meet them and give my thanks and have them all say thank you in return (well, except Tego. He was sort of stunned silent when I came up to him). I sat for almost an hour afterward at a Starbucks in the mall next door trying to get my heart to stop pounding and calm down enough to be able to go back to my friend’s place.

For a fan, seeing their idol in person is a sort of reaffirmation of the fact that holy shit, their idol is real; they exist, and they’re right the fuck there. Literally everyone I know who’s seen or met their idols has experienced that at some level. By seeing them or meeting face-to-face, one is getting past the media(ted) encounters through which one has experienced their idol before and affirming, with their own senses, their idol’s existence. Further, their idol now knows that they exist, and whether or not the idol remembers them down the road, they’ve had that experience and that encounter and for a lot of fans, it’s an extremely memorable and meaningful experience, one they might think about whenever they see their idols on a program, or when they need cheering up, or even at 4PM on a Tuesday for no real reason.

Personal Encounters

Like the fan encounter, the personal encounter — which I am defining as a fan meeting their idol outside of a concert or fan meeting — is kind of the height of fandom. Experiences to meet idols outside of sanctioned events are rare, and not an insignificant number of people freak out a little when it happens. With a fan meeting, one can kind of prepare oneself for what may happen (I say “kind of” because even the most stoic of people sometimes can’t hold back their emotions (*waves*)), but seeing their idol on the street, one is caught off-guard. The idol may or may not be in their idol mode (see: Sakamoto walking around on “One Dish”) but the fan is occupying a different role: worker, student, etc. and having their idol in front of them is a breach in the sociological sense, wherein someone steps outside expected interactions (like, if you stood facing everyone else in an elevator, or sat on your teacher’s desk instead of in your own, or just stood around doing nothing). The fan obviously comprehends that the idol has a life and is a normal person like them (stars! they’re just like us!) but in a certain sense, there’s a kind of dissonance between what one rationally understands and what actually gets through. What I mean is, we understand that our idols go to the store just like we do, but we’d probably all be shocked to see them there at the same time we were, buying a bunch of oranges or some coffee just like a regular person. A fan does not experience the idol’s daily life, even if one gets glimpses into it through videos (TV, DVD extras, etc.), so the fan would/will be caught off-guard when encountering their idol in a mundane setting.

In 2011, the Lincoln Center brought “Kinkakuji” to New York City for their annual summer festival of foreign plays. Shingo had come before that for “Talk Like Singing,” so this wasn’t the first time a J&A idol had come to do a play overseas, but it was the first and, at that time, the only way for me to see any of my idols in person, so with a few friends in tow, I went to NYC. The second night, we managed to make it to the stage door, along with a group of Japanese fans. The short version is I asked if we could give some gifts we’d made to Go (even though we know you’re only usually allowed to give letters, but we thought to try anyway), gave the letters we wrote, and, when he was leaving, I called out to him and we had a very awkward conversation in which I was tongue-tied and he seemed very surprised and shy. As we finished our sort-of conversation (it’s hard to have a real conversation when both people are super shy and I mean have you seen Go’s stare because goddamn I have met a lot of celebrities in my life and I was perfectly calm and collected and normal around them and then I get five inches from Go and just can’t handle him staring at me and forgot how to Japanese or English or breathe). Then, in 2013, on our first night in Osaka, as he was walking around the arena, he looked at my friend who was with me both in NYC and Osaka, then at me, then gave a look of “OH!” and leaned back around to wave and smile at us.

Now, let’s analyze how I’m presenting and interpreting all this. I’m shortening it and leaving out personal details, obviously, but second of all, I’m trying to be as objective as possible about two instances that a) still make me really twitterpated and b) may not be related. Maybe Go didn’t recognize us. There’s the possibility that, by virtue of being foreign, we got extra attention because, if you’ve seen me, I sort of stand out a lot (poor Ishmael has to live with the curse of my conspicuousness — we’ll be out places and people will only remember her in relation to me). I’m interpreting Go’s actions in New York as shy rather than as someone completely troubled by me/my actions (though I’ve worried about him secretly hating me and thinking I’m terrible and rude every moment since I called his name and kind of keep replaying the moment and wishing I’d done a hundred things differently and vowing to be more eloquent next time), even though, as he was leaving, he turned back around to call out “we’ll meet again~!” with a big, genuine-looking smile on his face.

What I think is most interesting with these encounters is that, when fans meet their idols, the first thing they tend to think or say when they talk to others about the experience is “he probably doesn’t/won’t remember me,” as though the fan is but a faceless member of an ever-increasing horde of starstruck girls who fawn over the idol(s) in question. And in a way, that’s not wrong. But there is still a desire to be remembered, especially if one is a foreign fan because we have to work so much harder to get closer to our idols.

My experience and the emotional investments I’ve made absolutely colour my impressions, so think about that as you read all my accounts. It’s entirely possible I’ve just been filed away as “generic white girl #92530823” in the heads of every J&A idol who’s seen/met me instead of “that one girl from NYC/Sapporo/Osaka.” (Ken also wrote about a white girl coming to see them in Sapporo after the night of the first show there on the 2011 tour and I’ve always assumed it was about me because I was the only white girl there).

But again, keep in mind that I’m using my knowledge base to interpret Go’s actions. I’m assuming he’s shy because that’s the character he’s presented on TV and in magazine interviews and that’s how he’s come off in basically everything. He needs time to warm up to people. I’m choosing (and I can’t stress that enough) to interpret all these interactions, both the ones I’ve talked about and the ones I’m not talking about (waves, peace signs, etc.) in a positive light because a) in essence, I have that freedom; and b) it would be devastating for it to be negative.

This is the thing about being a fan and bridging the gap: you risk being hurt by what you find. Maybe they’re a huge dick, which you could then interpret and explain away through secondary explanations of belief, as “maybe they were having a bad day” or “I shouldn’t have bothered them.” Or maybe they’re, as you thought, a big sweetheart, but even if they are, you still have to contend with the idea that maybe they’re just really good at this whole idol thing and are faking everything. It’s like putting your feelings out there to a friend: they can either accept them and be gracious or they can rip your heart out and eat it in front of you. But with idols, you’re putting so much more of your heart and soul into it, because you’ve invested so much time and emotion, and they’re presenting themselves as so much more genuine, so the precipitous drop can be that much more painful. So you’re left with one of two options: you either resist or embrace it. You know it’s happening and you collect the information but resist getting emotionally involved, or you throw caution to the wind and let it consume your soul.



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.


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:





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.


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.


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.


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


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.



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).


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.”


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


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).



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.


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!


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.



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).



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.


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).


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

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.


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.


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.


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

Johnny’s and Engaging the Foreign

Hi, I’m Captain Ahab. You may remember me from such posts as “Using JTicket International 2: Electric Boogaloo” and my seemingly endless stream of posts screaming about a certain idol and his doofy fucking face. I come to you today to talk about Johnny & Associates’ engagement with foreign fans and the foreign market. (But first, let me welcome you to this new space for discourse (welcome!))

Ah, Johnny’s. That bastion of sparkles, flashing lights, and costumes with poofy shoulders and an abundance of feathers. Yes, Johnny’s, that perennially insular provider of male idol groups whose business practices are virtually inscrutable. Over the past three years, they have been quietly expanding in small but relatively significant ways to engage a larger portion of the foreign market. Let’s explore those changes and their implications, focusing largely on concerts and access to information, and the ways in which J&A is both embracing and decentering fans and fan cultures (read: J&A appreciates your money but also probably hates you).

If you’re at all familiar with J&A, you know just how insular J&A is. Much of this is a byproduct of the structure of Japanese media and its insularity. Japanese media programs are much more difficult to license overseas due to their licensing fees being higher than any other country in Asia (this is a direct factor in why hallyu has gotten to be such a big deal because Korean dramas were/continue to be cheaper to license than Japanese. But that’s a post for another time). You know box sets of dramas, whether they feature idols or not, and concert DVDs of your preferred groups are exorbitantly expensive. CD singles and albums aren’t cheap, either, particularly for foreign fans. The Japanese media market aims to serve itself and be self-sustaining. I’d like to expand further on the efficacy and feasibility of self-sustainability, but that’s also another post for another time. Foreign sales, however, aren’t insignificant, and sales through Oricon-partnered online retailers are counted in overall Oricon sales with no distinction between foreign and domestic sales and have been for years now.

As we know, the pace at which J&A has embraced foreign fandom and social media has been glacial. Johnny’s International email service started in 2010 as a way for J&A to reach its fanbase and let it know about upcoming releases (mostly Tackey Channel), to let fans know about concerts for which they will be able to ballot, and any other information J&A feels fans need. J&A knows foreign fans are out there. Foreign fans obtaining, translating/subtitling, and then disseminating Japanese television shows (particularly dramas) has been a thing since at least the early 2000s1. Increasingly, fans are prosumers, crafting (and creating) content that reflects their desires and their views of/on the idol(s). This is also true for fan translators who, in whatever capacity, disseminate information about their favourite idol(s).2 Prosumption is something we’ll address in greater detail in another essay, but for now, just keep in mind that prosumers are interlocutors and shaping knowledge for foreign fans — largely for those dependent on translations, but also consider the way fans on sites like Tumblr shape information (I’m totally guilty of this).

In response to the doing away with restrictions on Japanese cultural products (in Korea, at least), various Johnny’s groups have done concerts and fan meetings in Korea, mainland China, and Taiwan (Arashi and V6 in participating in the Asia Song Festival in Kwangju and Seoul, NEWS in Taiwan, and SMAP in Shanghai immediately come to mind) (we know correlation doesn’t equal causation, but you have to know you have a market there before you’ll throw your money down to do a concert overseas). These opportunities are rare, but they do happen every few years or so. It’s important to note that these concerts are vastly different than the slap in the face that is Arashi’s upcoming 15th anniversary concert in Hawaii which is specifically for fans living in Japan who hit for tickets and get in on that package deal with JAL (and maybe a few Hawaii-based fans); these concerts in South Korea, Taiwan, and Shanghai are for the foreign fans. (Also, before we go on, let’s appreciate that TOKIO are going to be playing Summer Sonic this year, marking the first time a J&A group will be playing summer rock festival) (also, before fans get all crazy on me, I’m not saying it’s Arashi’s fault they’re doing this concert in this way, but it does still feel like a slap in the face).

You’re familiar with the family club only allowing those with Japanese addresses to join, and how one needs to be in the family club in order to ballot for tickets. And you know just how cruel a mistress the balloting system can be — send your 8,000 yen per ticket months before the concert, let Johnny sit on (or swim like Scrooge McDuck in) your money, only to call the hotline to find out you didn’t get chosen in the lottery and have your money returned (and your soul crushed a little. With love, Johnny & Associates). Of course, this all varies by group; some groups are easier to see than others. It’s really difficult to obtain a concert ticket if you’re a foreign fan, especially if you don’t live in Japan. Your only real options are: have someone in the FC and hope they hit for tickets; buy a ticket off someone on Twitter, Mixi, Yahoo! Auctions, or in one of the idol shops in Harajuku (and then, it might be marked up); or stand outside the venue with a sign in Japanese that reads “please sell me 1 ticket.” Lucky for you, JTicket International became a thing back in 2011 with a major change happening sometime between 2011 and 2013. Fans who hit for tickets in 2011 had to send copies of their passport photo page along with their flight itinerary to secure their ticket (and then pay cash at the venue); in 2013, you just had to pay online with a credit card and bring your confirmation email. They really had something there with JTicket International. The reader will note my use of the past tense there because JTicket has ceased operation and I am not presently aware of a successor to it. It was really nice while it lasted. I hope it comes back and I can also get some use out of my Johnny’s Family Club Support Card.

So that’s not a thing anymore. Also back in 2011, Johnny’s released the Johnny’s Web app to the App Store and Google Play, meaning users with smartphones could access jweb on their mobile devices by paying the 325 yen or whatever it is per month like everyone else. And that’s pretty rad. It sucks if you can’t really read Japanese, because you’re still having to either depend on more fluent fans to translate it or you’re stumbling through the entries, struggling with kanji (or both!) (I know I still do the latter on occasion. Kanji is a cruel mistress). Either way, it was something. And sometime last year, Johnny’s added English, Korean, and Chinese subscription services, so you could read the entries in your preferred language (assuming you read one of those languages).

What this does is in a way undermines fan translators and filesharers. Let me explain. This allows J&A to interact with fans who want to support their idols and/or who may not even know about fan translators, but it also lets them retake control over the words and images their idols are posting. This can also be seen in TBS uploading the foreigner segments of “Amazipang” with English subtitles to YouTube. I’ve talked a little before on my other blog about the implications of “Amazipang” as it plays into the formation of a national narrative and current nation branding strategies, and I plan to expand that this summer. For now, just be aware that this is pretty huge, mostly as it relates to the global availability of Japanese media. This is what Korean media companies started to do a few years ago to both engage with fans and combat illegal filesharing: put the shows on YouTube, provide subs, and expect fans will watch it that way. The companies still retain control over their intellectual property and can change or remove the video at their discretion (let’s not get into semantics about how people can still download videos from YouTube or any of that, okay?). It should be noted, and this is vital, that these segments on YouTube are all sans V6. The only reason this writer can think of for this is “because Johnny’s” (when you’re still mandating that online vendors selling magazines or books with your idols on the cover instead use a silhouette of the idol(s), you’re not going to upload videos of them to YouTube).

So there are good and bad things about Johnny’s engaging with fans. You can feel included in the community by having the information (whether textual or media) delivered to you directly and in your preferred language. It does, however, serve to disrupt the visible but still somewhat illicit fan communities that have formed and thrived on the internet for over a decade. That’s sort of the impression I have of Johnny’s recent foray onto Weibo. Johnny’s have had twitter accounts for things before (usually stage plays, sometimes dramas, some of them run by J&A artists. Koyama running the twitter account for “Guests of Room #0” while it was running comes to mind), so there has been some engagement there but no real official presence.3 On the one hand, you feel like you’re a witness to history. Wow, Johnny’s embracing social media! On the other hand, you’re paranoid and you wonder what this means for fan communities. You’ve probably felt the panopticon or heard rumblings about it and its reaches but now the panopticon is staring you in the face.

There seems to be very little in the way of a concerted strategy to engage an increasingly visible foreign market; again, much of this could very well be due to the insularity of the Japanese market itself. Johnny’s has been a pop culture force for decades without the foreign market, and the foreign fans have proven they’re willing to (resigned to?) conform to the system already in place in order to engage with their idol(s). Groups may go overseas to debut (Arashi, Tegomass), or for promotions for movies (“Letters from Iwo Jima,” “SP,” “NazoDi”) or to perform plays (“Talk Like Singing,” “Kinkakuji”), go on location for news coverage or variety shows (the list is quite long but Sho, Inocchi, Tego, Koyama, and Taichi all immediately come to mind, along with V6’s many “where are you going?” games and the time they went to South Korea to sell sushi for the VVV6 junk battles or when Inocchi went to Miami, etc., etc.), and occasionally appearing on foreign TV (Yamapi), but there’s no concerted engagement. Again, there doesn’t need to be. Many fans who illegally get their hands on Johnny’s material will later buy that same or new material in order to support the artist — or at least will feel compelled to even if they can’t afford much — but in this is conformity to the current market strategy. Johnny’s groups have exposure through fans who encounter media containing them in Japan, on the internet, through friends, etc. or who seek them out. “Amazipang” and Yamapi’s new show, “Otona no Kiss Eigo,” show some efforts to engage the foreign, but again, we have to consider the primary market for these shows and the reason behind them. “Amazipang”‘s show description says explicitly that they’re going to talk to foreigners about what’s awesome about Japan and then show that off to the world, and Yamapi’s show is, by its own description, not just a show for studying English (but it kind of is). These shows are cool, but again, they’re not specifically for us. Whether they’re used in engagement with the foreign fans/market remains to be seen (“Amazipang” sans V6 is trying) but there’s currently no indication they will be. Foreign celebrities often appear on J&A variety shows (“SMAPxSMAP,” “Arashi ni Shiyagare,” “VS Arashi,” “Gakkou e Ikou” (RIP), etc.) but again, consider the primary market for these shows.

All of this operates under a principle of “come to us, because we’re probably not coming to you.” Concerts in foreign locations are logistically difficult, yes, but lucrative. Yet they don’t happen often, so fans are invited to come, via JTicket International (RIP), to Japan. Fans are encouraged (expected?) to sign up for subscription-based services to read blogs. Information is, to some extent, increasingly coming from Johnny’s themselves. Fans are definitely expected to buy official releases from their favourite artists. There’s a normalizing in all this, and it’s one that gets fans to behave as J&A expects its Japanese fans to behave. It also, again, allows Johnny’s to control the script and its products. The foreign may feature in J&A (location shoots, locations for concerts/fan meetings, on TV shows, etc.), and as we’ve seen, there have been/are attempts at including the foreign but only insofar as it brings the foreign under their purview and, again, normalizes consumption practices.

This author has no real pronouncements on all this; she is merely cautiously optimistic for how and in what ways these things will change in the future. All media markets are different. Engagement is complicated, and I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens? There still seems to be a policy of letting sleeping dogs (fan communities) lie, but who knows when or if that will change.

Citations and Notes
01. Lee, Dong-Hoo. “Popular Cultural Capital and Cultural Identity: Young Korean Women’s Cultural Appropriation of Japanese TV Dramas” in Chua, Beng Huat, and Kōichi Iwabuchi. 2008. East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave.. It is interesting to note that in this study fans, even when presented with official subtitles on DVDs, still preferred fansubs because fans would explain culturally-specific concepts/practices.

02. See the first and last chapter of Scripted Affects, Branded Selves: Television, Subjectivity, and Capitalism in 1990s Japan by Gabriela Lukacs. She deals much better with the idea of consumers crafting and creating content, the increasingly niche nature of Japanese media and choosing what one consumes and what one associates with, and the cultures surrounding fansubbing and foreigners consuming dramas.

03. Readers should be aware Johnny’s are not (usually) allowed to have social media accounts. Jin created his in March 2011 while still with J&A and as he was in the midst of his US debut. Others, such as Tanaka Koki, had to wait until Johnny’s terminated their contract. J-web is, in essence, the closest J&A artists get to official social media accounts. And speaking of Jin, we’re not even going to, because his attempts to break into the US market just require a whole separate entry.