Will K-Pop Really Bring About the Downfall of the North Korean Regime? It’s Not Likely.

Claire McCrea, Editor

In a 2019 interview with Time, North Korean diplomat-turned-defector Thae Yong-Ho boldly predicted, “Materialism will one day bring change.” [1] Like Thae, many North Korea watchers are betting on the power of pop culture and its ability to take down a 75-year-old regime. But is North Korea’s trajectory really pointing toward collapse? And if so, does the credit for that go to Korean dramas, K-Pop, and other flows of outside information? The short answer: no, and no.  

When North Korean escapees look back on the life-threatening decision to leave their homeland, the reasons they give often echo one another, especially among younger escapees. Listening to foreign radio broadcasts gave me proof that the state was lying to me. Or, K-Pop exposed me to material culture and inspired me to rebel against the status quo. Most often, Watching dramas showed me what life was really like in South Korea, and I knew life was better there than here. What, then, was the natural next step for these enlightened North Koreans? Escaping, of course. 

It’s a compelling narrative, no doubt. One way the regime is able to maintain its legitimacy and control over the population is by strangling the flow of outside information, ensuring that the North Korean people are bombarded daily with the same state-approved narrative — on TV and on the radio, as well as in newspapers, books, music, and film — all without a counter-narrative to challenge the regime’s propaganda. 

In recent years, however, the state’s control over the media its population consumes has weakened significantly. In a 2015 Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) survey, 71% of North Koreans surveyed listed “word of mouth” as their primary source of information, while only three percent chose “domestic TV.” [2]

If regime stability is dependent upon the state’s control of information, what does the changing relationship between the North Korean populace and their access to foreign information mean for the future of authoritarian dictatorship in North Korea? Like Thae Yong-Ho, many are quick to interpret the increased availability of foreign media in North Korea as an existential threat to the Kim regime. Once the North Korean people learn the truth about the outside world, they argue, bottom-up pressures will give the regime two options: liberalize or collapse. 

Where, then, is the grassroots movement that was supposed to emerge from this foreign media-empowered generation? Why has the regime’s control over its population only grown stronger since the succession of Kim Jong-Un to the status of Supreme Leader?

When asked this same question, escapee Jin-hyok Park gave a simple, yet resolute, answer: information alone is not enough to bring radical change to North Korea. [3] While it’s true that access to foreign media has made most average North Koreans more aware of the discrepancies between state-sanctioned propaganda and reality, knowledge does not always guarantee action. Without the right to gather and discuss what they’ve learned about the outside world through these foreign media sources, North Koreans have no means to generate any kind of mass movement. 

A change in the general mindset of the North Korean people is meaningful, but insufficient.  Even if every citizen decided to oppose the regime after listening to foreign radio or watching a South Korean news broadcast, the threat of punishment for planning or gathering still looms too large for the average North Korean.

Furthermore, in a Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) report on foreign media infiltration, journalist Martyn Williams warns us not to underestimate the power of brainwashing. [4] When Radio Free Asia broadcasts into North Korea, its content is competing with an endless, aggressive propaganda campaign that penetrates every aspect of North Korean life. Images of fast food, cars, and fashion in Seoul are not enough to undo a lifetime of indoctrination and emotional manipulation, especially when critical thinking has been discouraged since birth. 

Like Park, Williams also points to the state security apparatus as evidence of the regime’s longevity. When it’s impossible to know who is listening in on your conversation and the punishment for disobedience is severe, the likelihood of an uprising is slim. Furthermore, Kim Jong-Un has actively sought to limit the flow of media into the country by cracking down on distributors and ramping up indoctrination efforts.

So, will K-Pop really be the savior of North Korea? It’s not likely. The conclusion to this puzzle, however, is not that increased access to information is useless, nor that media infiltration campaigns should be stopped. Rather, the purpose of this piece is to demonstrate that information is only the first step in overcoming top-down oppression in North Korea. 

In order for media infiltration campaigns to have any meaningful effect on regime stability, major change must first take place in the civil environment of North Korea. Only when citizens have gained the freedom to discuss new ideas, coordinate acts of resistance, and express dissent toward the government will they be able to leverage the information they’ve obtained to challenge authoritarianism and improve their quality of life. Until then, it’s unlikely that K-Pop alone will be enough to take down Kim Jong-Un and his regime.

[1] Barron, Laignee. “‘Materialism Will One Day Bring Change.’ Why a Senior Defector Believes North Korea’s Days Are Numbered.” Time. Last modified September 18, 2019. https://time.com/5680012/thae-yong-ho-north-korea-kim-jong-un-regime-change/.

[2] Corrado, Jonathan R. “How foreign media is changing the ways North Koreans view the outside world.” NK News. Last modified January 28, 2020. https://www-nknews-org.proxy1.library.jhu.edu/pro/how-foreign-media-is-changing-the-ways-north-koreans-view-the-outside-world/.

[3] Park, Jinhyok. “Ask a North Korean: Can outside information bring change?.” NK News. Last modified September 13, 2016. https://www-nknews-org.proxy1.library.jhu.edu/2016/09/ask-a-north-korean-can-information-from-the-outside-world-bring-change/.

[4] Williams, Martyn. Rep. Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive. Washington, D.C.: The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2019.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Korea_KPOP_World_Festival_54.jpg