Gangnam Style/Pyongyang Slam Dunk

PSY, picture: Republic of Korea photo stream Flickr

PSY, picture: Republic of Korea photo stream Flickr

The conflict between North and South Korea is at a long impasse. Both sides of the Korean peninsula keep waiting to bring their sister country to the point of exhaustion in order to force them into their own version of a reunion. While the South is fully incorporated into global society, the North has closed its doors to the outside world like a “Hermit Kingdom”. Their decades long separation and radically different political systems have produced two countries whose influence on the world’s pop-culture is entirely different.

One South Korean singer, named PSY, managed to conquer the globe with his hit Gangnam Style which mocks the posh inhabitants of the Gangnam district of Seoul. Gangnam Style’s finest hour was its victory against the Canadian Justin Bieber by becoming the first video with one billion views on YouTube. PSY’s worldwide popularity became so great that he was chosen to become the face of the South Korean government’s PR-campaign initiative ‘I Buzz Korea’ to promote the country abroad.

Korean pop is dominated by what is generally known as ‘K-pop’: a group of singers accompanied by highly choreographed dance acts set to pop music, starkly reminiscent of the era of boy bands and girl groups that once dominated western pop music in the late 1990s. Most K-pop groups tend to be more harmless and playful, in contrast to the overtly satirical or political messages of PSY. The target audience is primarily children and young adults. If the listener happens to be older than thirty years old they fall into the category of ‘uncle’ fans. In contrast to PSY’s more jolly image, ‘youth’ and looks are a highly valued commodity in K-pop groups: Record labels screen new talent when they create new K-pop groups by simulating how their voice might sound three to seven years in the future. Even before PSY’s massive hit, K-pop had been growing steadily internationally. For example, the heavyweight K-pop group EXO became noticeably bigger. The group consists of twelve members – with half of them singing in Mandarin and the other in Korean, all in order to make the group easier to market to two different audiences at the same time.

PSY gained public attention not just for his successful career as a singer, but also because of his political involvements. Preceding a Christmas concert performance in Washington, PSY apologised for his participation in and remarks made at two anti-U.S. protests in South Korea. Max Fisher, foreign affairs blogger for the Washington Post, tried to clarify the situation  by arguing that PSY was merely reflecting the general South Korean sentiment of anger and brimming “nationalism” prevailing in the country at the time. PSY represents a culture teeming under the constant threat of war, trying to broker a way of political expression through the essence of art. 

In contrast to the South, the North Korean government has closed its curtains to the world. Knowledge of what goes in the country is subject to constant speculation from outsiders. All communication with the rest of the world is strictly controlled by the authoritarian government and thus culture comes in short supply. Culture on North Korea is generally manufactured outside the country, such as by deceased leader Kim Jong-Il’s puppet caricature in Team America: World Police or by serving as James Bond’s adversary. It is also known that the late 70s North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il kidnapped and imprisoned directors and actors and forced them to produce his own private movies. The Arirang games are one of the few world known cultural spectacles that North Korea produces and to which it occasionally lets outsiders, such as journalists, attend.

There have been attempts to soften up the isolationism of North Korea. The “Sunshine Policy” started by former President of South Korea Kim Dae-Jung was based on engaging in better relations through joint cultural and economical projects. Among those which came to fruition was the Kaesong Industrial Park set up in the North but run by Southern entrepreneurs and tourist trips to Mount Kumgang. The policy came under criticism for strengthening the hand of the failing northern state. After nearly a decade, the Sunshine Policy came to an end in 2008 with newly elected president Lee Myung-bak taking a more hawkish position in alignment with the stance of then U.S president George W. Bush.

One recent event that signalled small change was the visit of Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea in February 2013 with their match against North Korea’s own basketball “Dream Team”. Dennis Rodman presided over the match and sat together with the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The trip was dubbed “Basketball Diplomacy” by the media. While Rodman’s talk with Kim Jong-un was highly publicized, the national reaction by North Korean basketball players was that they fully accept sportspeople from around the world to come to North Korea play with their own athletes.

Both North and South Korea, due to their long-lasting divisions, have created two completely different pop-culture images. They are still technically at war, and their antagonism is reflected in their contrasting attitudes to culture: While the South’s highly polished and commercial music business and its ascension in the world charts portrays South Korea as an animated and joyful country, the North’s authoritarian government has given birth to an image that attracts audiences more fascinated by bizarreness of the country’s society and its clichéd hostility. 

ALI ACIKGOZ AND NIKLAS HJELM-SMITH