K-pop is one of South Korea’s most successful cultural exports, with an ever-expanding global audience — but it looks like that not everyone is a fan.
Over the weekend, a North Korean propaganda website published an article accusing K-pop record labels of “slave-like abuse” of hugely popular bands like BTS and Blackpink.
K-pop artists were “bound to shockingly unjust contracts from an early age, detained at their school, and treated as slaves after being deprived of their body, mind, and soul by the heads of ruthless and greedy art-related conglomerates,” according to the piece on North Korea’s Arirang Meari website.
The K-pop industry is notoriously difficult to break into, but the North Korean article offered no evidence to back up its arguments. It was just a few paragraphs long and quoted “reports” from other publications.
According to a landmark 2014 UN report, North Korea has long been accused of systematic human rights violations, including subjecting political prisoners to forced labor and slave-like conditions.
The piece was most likely part of a North Korean propaganda campaign targeting international media. Although Pyongyang’s strict censorship apparatus controls what movies, music, television, newspapers, and books its people can watch, technology has made it easier to smuggle in content from other countries, especially on USB sticks.
According to defectors, ordinary North Koreans who consume foreign material, especially from South Korea and the United States, are subjected to harsh punishment. Historically, such laws have not deterred citizens from doing so, although this could be changing.
Following years of poor economic results, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to be doubling down on central planning as a means of boosting development, which he stated as his top long-term goal for the regime at a major political meeting earlier this year. According to some analysts, the renewed emphasis on government influence applies to propaganda activities and international content use.
North Korea’s rubber-stamp legislature passed a new law in December compelling citizens and organisations to avoid the “spread of anti-socialist ideology”– in practice, that usually means any content that has not been approved by government censors.
In February, Kim hinted that tighter restrictions on societal content may be on the way. He called for a “more powerful struggle than ever before” against anti-socialist and non-socialist activities.
Despite centuries of common culture, music in communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea has developed in somewhat different ways since the peninsula was divided into two political bodies following World War II.
K-pop has developed into a multibillion-dollar industry of international acclaim. When relations between the two Koreas were strained in the past, South Korea broadcast K-pop across the border as part of its propaganda efforts.
Meanwhile, music is an integral part of daily life in North Korea and is used as a propaganda instrument to glorify the ruling Kim family and its battle against imperialism.
Because North Korea has a monopoly on creative expression, its songs — and thus their approved messages — are uniquely pervasive.
In an interview last year, ethnomusicologist and North Korean music expert Keith Howard said, “There’s no indication that people are making any of their own music outside of what’s centrally licensed.” “The only recording company is state-owned, and no performances outside of what is allowed are permitted.”