North Korea is one of the most heavily policed countries in the world, with its culture being greatly restricted.
The country has sought to prohibit Western music and culture for decades, and this has also encompassed restrictions on K-Pop.
Yet, K-Pop has still managed to garner fans within North Korea who secretly listen to the genre.
Lee Kwang-Baek, president of the Unification Media Group, specifically credits K-Pop for playing a role in undermining the propaganda that the North Korean regime installs in its citizens.
For many North Korean defectors, music has been given as a factor in their disenchantment with the dictatorship and hence a motivation to escape.
North Korean defector, Ryu Hee-Jin is one of these people.
Ryu revealed that she has been interested in music ever since she was a little child, although she was brought up surrounded by patriotic music praising North Korea’s leaders.
When you listen to North Korean music, you have no emotions
For Hee-Jin, her perspective would be dramatically changed when she first heard South Korean pop music.
But when you listen to American or South Korean music, it literally gives you the chills. The lyrics are so fresh, so relatable. When kids listen to this music, their facial expressions just change.
Ryu admitted that she had been surrounded by anti-South Korea and anti-Western propaganda as a child.
When she listened to K-Pop however, she realised that there was something relatable and human about the artists.
But when you listen to their art, you’ve just got to acknowledge them
Growing up, she specifically names TVXQ, Girls’ Generation and T-ara as her favorite K-Pop groups.
Simply listening to K-Pop is dangerous in North Korea. 75% of recent defectors stated that they knew of someone who had been punished for consuming foreign entertainment and music.
Even children who listen to foreign music would be sent to a re-education camp for up to a year. For adults, they can face penal labour for life or even death.
Being aware of how high the stakes were, Ryu continued to secretly listen to K-Pop.
Once she realised that the world described by these K-Pop songs was different from she had been told, Ryu started understanding that the North Korean propaganda was all a lie.
She was eventually convinced that North Korea was not the workers’ paradise it claimed to be and that the only way she could find freedom and opportunity would be to escape.
With unlimited courage and bravery, Ryu Hee-Jin defected to South Korea, when she was only 23 years old, in 2015.
Today, she is studying for a business degree and is still a fan of K-Pop. She praises Korean pop music as what gave her the motivation to seek a better life in the South.
It’s so incredible how far I have come. South Korean music really played a central role in guiding me through this journey
Many defectors, like Ryu Hee-Jin, have similarly stated that it was secretly listening to K-Pop and Western music that helped them realise the facade of the North Korean dictatorship.
Hence, South Korean culture has been continually used as a means of countering North Korea’s propaganda, in hopes that other citizens will continue to gain the awareness and courage to escape too.