Sipping from a mug while fiddling with a white iPhone, Jessie Kim blends perfectly into the crowd of students preparing for exams in a trendy coffee shop in the uber-trendy Seoul district around Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
But this 26-year-old does not need an MBA. She learned everything she needed to know about doing business, first-hand, in her native country – North Korea.
“I started trading with Chinese merchants when I was 12,” recalled Kim, who was born in Hyesan, a city along North Korea’s China border, 330 kilometers northeast of Pyongyang. “I sold them medicinal plants collected in the mountains nearby. In return, boats came back full of DVDs of Chinese, Americans or South Korea movies and dramas.”
Kim, a farmer’s daughter, not only made a hefty profit out of smuggling forbidden items across the Yalu River frontier, but when she watched some of the things she imported, she discovered a new world that would change her life.
“I was fascinated by what I could see in the backgrounds: I had never seen skyscrapers or planes,” Kim said. “There were so many cars that I realized it could not be just a show shot in a studio, but reality. I started questioning everything I had been told since I was born.”
Her questions were answered in 2011 when she defected to South Korea. “North Korean movies are all about glorifying the leaders and the Party,” Kim said. “Chinese or South Korean dramas instead involve romance, which is precisely why they are so popular.”
The USB revolution
Her story says a lot about an on-going underground paradigm shift that is silently transforming the world’s most isolated country – and which may ultimately undermine Kim Jong Un’s totalitarian control over his 25 million citizens.
Rather than a revolution or an uprising, it is glamour, rom-coms and miniskirts that are the secret weapons changing North Korea and testing the regime’s political grip by challenging the narrative espoused by the world’s only communist dynasty.
Despite strengthened border control since Kim, the third member of his family to rule North Korea, took office in December 2011, access to foreign content has been growing, according to defectors and visitors to the China-North Korean border.
“Foreign movies and dramas are widely available at the jangmadang,” said Kim, referring to North Korea’s private markets. “You just need to ask the right person where to purchase a smuggled USB stick.”
One stick can carry as many as 100 movies or TV episodes and only costs 150 RMB, or roughly US$21. That’s not cheap in an underdeveloped economy, but definitely affordable for a growing number of consumers, including members of the Worker’s Party.
About 75% of newly arrived defectors in Seoul say they watched forbidden foreign content, according to Sokeel Park, the Seoul representative of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an NGO that helps North Koreans who escaped the country.
USBs allow the smuggling of more content than DVDs and lower the risk. The devices are easy to hide in a pocket or throw out a window. DVDs can be dangerous. Security forces kill electricity supplies before storming into houses on searches, leaving forbidden DVDs stuck in powerless players.
USBs pre-loaded with foreign content satisfy a rising demand. “Behind its rigid facade, North Korea’s society is going through significant changes,” said Park. “We are witnessing the emergence of a subculture among millennials, nurtured by access to foreign media content.”
A pop-culture challenge
This challenges Pyongyang’s totalitarian ideology, which aims to shape the hearts and souls of citizens, from cradle to grave.
South Korean K-pop singers and dramas influence fashion trends among young people, challenging the regime’s prudish dress code. At markets, tailors and hairdressers offer clothes and cuts inspired by the look of idols from Seoul, said Kim.
“Young people assert their own individuality through fashion,” said Park. “This discreet public signaling challenges the notion that one’s life is only dedicated to love of the ‘Dear Leader.’”
Doing what is forbidden nurtures a sense of community among young people. Gathering a ring of trustworthy friends for a clandestine, after-dark screening is “like doing drugs in the West,” Park reckoned. And secretive meetings are another challenge to a regime that does not permit freedom of assembly.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un is under pressure from a population with rising expectations. “He is walking a tightrope as he knows he has to deliver better living conditions,” said Park.
A fumbled response
“The Young Marshal,” who was exposed to foreign media during his youth in Bern, Switzerland, takes this challenge seriously. Kim, who is married to ex-singer Ri Sol Ju, has responded with a two-pronged strategy since he took office: cracking down sternly on forbidden content, while promoting a local pop culture capable of seducing the new generation.
Only months after taking office, Kim launched the Moranbong Band, an all-female band that plays jaunty, electric tunes, with great fanfare. During their first performance in July 2012, short skirts, high heels and even Disney characters appeared on stage, signaling the “Young Marshal’s” determination to rejuvenate Pyongyang’s pop scene.
“Kim Jong Un organized the Moranbong Band as required by the new century, prompted by a grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year in which a new century of Juche Korea begins,” announced the KCNA, the regime’s official news agency.
However, the move did not sit well with the old guard. In 2013, Moranbong toned down its dress code, shifting back to military-style uniforms after several months of non-appearances in public.
In April, Kim showed a penchant for foreign pop culture, greeting South Korean artists on an official visit to Pyongyang, including hit girl-band Red Velvet, amid warming inter-Korean ties. “I rearranged my schedule to meet you,” Kim told the visitors.
Meanwhile, the regime intensified the crackdown on imports of foreign media content at the border and was chasing “anti-socialist behaviour.” The Party Central Committee gave special instructions to root out non-socialist phenomena, such as fashion choices and hairstyles that “do not fit the socialist lifestyle,” a source told Radio Free Asia.
Members of the “Kim Il Sungist Youth League” have even been mobilized to check young people’s dress code across the country. However, an anonymous source added that government campaigns had so far failed to contain new trends, leading to stricter punishments.
But Seoul’s K-pop and K-drama stars have won over a vast audience across the world. Nothing seems capable of repelling the wave – not even the fences that surround the world’s most isolated nation.