Music filtering into the hermit country of North Korea has inspired some to defect to South Korea, according to new reports.
A survey released in June by South Korea’s Unification Media Group (UMG), as reported by The Washington Post, found 90% of 200 recent defectors to South Korea had watched foreign films, television shows, and listened to foreign music while living in North Korea, and many knew people who had been punished due to engaging with that foreign media.
They also reported that under the reign of Kim Jong Un, who came to power in 2011 following the death of his father and previous North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, access to overseas media content had become even more dangerous.
The Post spoke to Ryu Hee-jin, a defector from North Korea, who spoke about discovering American and South Korean music in her youth and being inspired by it, learning about the world in part through this music and also through time spent living in southern Europe while working as a waitress.
“We were always taught that Americans were wolves and South Koreans were their puppets,” Ryu said, “but when you listen to their art, you’ve just got to acknowledge them.” She listened to acts including Celine Dion, Nigel Kennedy, Westlife, TVXQ!, Girls’ Generation, and T-ara.
Ryu defected to South Korea in 2015 at the age of 2013, and was one of several female defectors to talk with The Post about their love of K-pop. “It’s so incredible how far I have come,” she reportedly said. “South Korean music really played a central role in guiding me through this journey.”
Media content from foreign countries is often smuggled into North Korea through black markets and organizations like Flash Drives for Freedom, which attempts to disseminate international music, films, and television shows to share with North Koreans what is going on beyond its borders.
Kang Na-ra defected in 2014 so she “could express myself freely” after being a singer as a student in Pyongyang. She tried to pursue a career in K-pop but was unable to, and now is a television personality and actress.
Han Song-ee saw a video of girl group Baby V.O.X performing at a unification concert in Pyongyang in 2003, and followed K-pop growing up, and even wore the colorful pants popularized by Girls’ Generation, most closely associated with their 2009 hit “Gee.” After defecting in 2013, she now operates as a media personality and vlogger in Seoul.
One woman, who remains unnamed because of safety concerns, expressed outrage after finding out that Kim Jong Un had seen girl group Red Velvet and other South Korean artists perform at a concert — similar to the 2003 one Baby V.O.X performed at — in Pyongyang last year, while it was only circulated illicitly among the average citizen. “Kim Jong Un apparently clapped and cheered at the performance, but we could only watch smuggled footage of it in hiding because consuming South Korean music was still a crime that could land us in prison,” she said.