For some reason when I think of Kim Jong Un, I imagine him sitting down at a huge desk, in a very empty room – perhaps a couple of generals standing by – figuring out how to steal intelligence from the CIA and what to learn, if anything, from ISIS recruitment strategy. Well, I was wrong. Apparently the most recent pain point in the North Korean media meltdown is (pause for effect) – soap operas.
Red Bean Bread, Bad Housewife and Scent Of A Man are but a few of the tiles that have been keeping the North Korean leader up at night. Visions of a spreading capitalist infection leaking across the North Korean border are enough to make the latest installment of the Kim dynasty sweat.
The lusty soaps have become a global phenomenon reporting sizable viewing figures in countries as far flung as the United States and Cuba. The industry is growing rapidly, The Financial Times reports that TV drama exports from South Korea grew from $8m in 2001 to $155m in 2011.
In the totalitarian state of North Korea all media is state controlled, since the nineties the state has resolved to curb, what has since been labeled, the Korean Wave. SWAT teams burst into homes to cut wires and destroy DVD players, and in some cases detain the offending viewers; and all this from a man who maintains that ‘a film with an untidy plot cannot grip the audience and define their emotional response’.
Imagine a team of armed policemen kicking down your door in the middle of a True Blood omnibus.
With battery powered players and devices like USB sticks it has since become incredibly hard for the regime to control the surreptitious flow of entertainment into North Korea.
The effect? People defect.
A recent study conducted by Seoul National University’s Institute has shown that more than 8 in 10 of 149 interviewed defectors had been exposed to South Korean entertainment before fleeing. Now, it is uncertain whether this phenomenon will spread throughout the whole country, as it seems most defectors live close to Chinese borders where it is easier to smuggle items and to flee the country, however it is undeniably causing a stir in the God-king’s state.
The International New York Times interviewed maths professor, Jang Se-yul who escaped after watching Scent Of A Man. The newspaper reports a graduate student offered him a bundle of DVDs, which he watched in sequence until dawn in the company of five colleagues – arguably the most dangerous binge the world has ever seen. Despite significant efforts to evade detection the secret soap sit-in was uncovered and those in attendance were sentenced to labor in a power plant.
Mr Jang bribed his way to escape and understandably defected, he now leads a group that sends South Korean entertainment to North Korea in an attempt to empower its citizens to challenge their leaders view that ‘the US and the South Korean puppets try to conceal their nuclear crimes and talk about “nuclear threats” from the North, the victim of the crimes.’
Another woman who managed to leave the country explained to the International New York Times how soap operas helped her make the decision to flee in 2013: “The kitchens with hot and cold water, people dating in a café, cars clogging streets, women wearing different clothes each day – unlike us who wore the same padded jacket, day in, day out”.
Who would have thought, by listening to K-Pop music, that the Korean Wave would become the instrument through which a country could challenge the status quo?