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Cultural Bubble Goes Pop

Some outside influences now elude the tight control of North Korea. But it's unclear whether this can undermine the regime.

October 31, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

PYONGYANG, North Korea — The song has a retro feel to it, a bit of swing and the mood of a Vegas house band, and the outfits on the three female singers bring to mind the long-lost word "stewardess." Behind them, dressed in a blue, sequined shirt, Ri Jin Hyuk builds toward the finish, sticks held high above his head, striking the perfect rock drummer pose.

Then he finishes with polite rat-a-tat pops on the snare. Like he's playing a polka.

That's the required style if you want to play in a Pyongyang high school band, where the repertoire is pretty much limited to feel-good North Korean revolutionary folk songs such as "Let's Study Hard," "Let's Become One" and "Let's Go to the Army."

Play rock music? Rap? Metal? Ri says he's never even heard them.

"I have never seen a Western drummer," the thin 18-year-old with slightly spiky hair says after the performance in his school's auditorium. Ri claims he's never heard of the Beatles, never listened to any Western bands and has absolutely no interest in doing so.

Right answer.

In North Korea, a land without Elvis or Oprah, the cultural heroes are supposed to be homegrown. Western pop culture -- especially American pop culture -- is unwelcome here, denounced by Kim Jong Il's regime as a capitalist virus. So it banned Hollywood and Google, like some stern 1950s parent trying to keep a lock on the kids.

But North Korea is discovering that no country can completely seal its borders against electronic intruders.

Although the demilitarized buffer zone to the south still provides protection against illegal imports from South Korea, the real action is to the north. North Korean defectors say DVDs of foreign music and movies have accompanied the increase in trade and traffic with China over the last few years, leaking across the 850-mile border.

From South Korean television dramas to Chinese martial arts movies and a smattering of Hollywood hits, they are giving North Koreans a break from the relentless pro-regime, anti-U.S. propaganda and a peek into how the much-wealthier outside world lives.

"For decades, this country was second only to Albania, or even second to none, for keeping out all information about foreign countries," says Andrei Lankov, a Russian academic based in Seoul who lived in Pyongyang in the 1980s. "But the old state supervision, where the police would do random checks looking for things like radios, collapsed over the last decade. It was too expensive to run."

The relaxation means that more North Koreans are acquiring cheap secondhand VCRs and even cheap DVD players from China. This year, a former North Korean smuggler now living in Thailand described to a Los Angeles Times reporter how he used to sneak 1,000 DVDs at a time across the border into North Korea, laid flat in a trunk under cigarette cartons.

There was healthy demand for American action films such as "Con Air," said the smuggler, who used the name Park Dae Heung, but his strongest trade was in South Korean fare: TV dramas such as the romantic "Winter Sonata" and action flicks such as "JSA" (for Joint Security Area), about the slayings of two North Korean soldiers in the DMZ.

As more images of well-fed, well-dressed foreigners filter into this downtrodden land, the emerging question is whether they can sow doubt in a population that has endured 60 years of unchallenged propaganda about the perfection of their own lives and the evils of the West.

The prevailing narrative in North Korean culture is an unblinking paean to self-reliance -- the philosophy of juche, articulated by founding father Kim Il Sung. Music and movies celebrate the Great Leader's apparently single-handed accomplishments, including throwing Japanese and American imperialists out of the nation.

"We will watch movies about how our Great Leader founded the party and our country," Yon Ok Ju, a 20-year-old university student, says when asked what she and her family will do during the holiday marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party.

That meant one more showing of "Star of Korea," which tells the story of Kim's rise to power, or "The Destiny of a Man" from the 1970s, or the post-World War II classic "My Homeland."

But Yon is a university English student, putting her in a select group that has some access to Western culture. She's heard of Bill Gates -- "the computer guy!" -- and can borrow Harry Potter books from the library.

She also watches American movies as part of her curriculum. She has seen "Twister," Adam Sandler's "Big Daddy" and "Gladiator." She loved the lead actor in that one. "I only know his name is Maximus," she says. His real name is Russell Crowe, she's told. She shrugs. "Never heard of him."

North Korea is particularly burdened by having a dictator who fancies himself a film connoisseur. A movie collector and writer of books on the subject, Kim Jong Il is given to dropping by Pyongyang Film Studios to offer creative advice, and occasionally pointed criticism.

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