By now, “Gangnam Style” has become part of the pop culture lexicon. The infectious song by South Korean singer Psy broke the Guinness world record for “most likes” on YouTube. The video has been watched nearly 425 million times and has inspired flash mobs and parodies by lifeguards, Ivy leaguers and hot moms.
If you haven’t heard of “Gangnam Style,” you’ve probably spent the last month orbiting in outer space.
Or perhaps you live above the 38th parallel, in North Korea.
North Korea is as isolated and backward as South Korea is wired and technologically advanced. And while some ruling elites in Pyongyang are certainly aware of “Gangnam Style” — we know this because of a parody video posted on the North’s official website featuring an image of South Korean presidential candidate Park Geun-hye doing Psy’s signature horse dance — the regime prohibits ordinary North Koreans from having access to the Internet.
The average citizen has no knowledge of YouTube, Facebook or Twitter.
It’s safe to say that North Korea’s notorious propaganda machine would never willingly let its impoverished population see the original “Gangnam Style” video, which parodies the riches and excess enjoyed in Seoul’s trendy Gangnam neighborhood.
Three years ago, I got a unique glimpse of the so-called Hermit Kingdom after I was taken prisoner by North Korean soldiers along the Chinese-North Korean border while working on a documentary. The North was like no place I’d ever been. In contrast to the frenzy of the South, life there was slow and antiquated, a land frozen in a Cold War time warp.
All media in North Korea are tightly controlled by the country’s propaganda network. I was able to watch television with my guards on certain evenings, and as far as I could tell, the closest thing the North Koreans had to a pop sensation was a group of handsome singers from the military choir who belted out old-fashioned love songs and patriotic anthems. My female guards would swoon at the sight of these acoustic-guitar-playing performers dressed in army garb.
But my guards were not totally unaware of outside pop culture. One had been given Hollywood screenplays in college to help improve her English language skills. It was disconcerting to hear her reciting lines from the Adam Sandler flick “Big Daddy.” U.S. culture was clearly seeping into North Korea, but it was hard to fathom what effect it was having.
Since North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jung Un, took power after his father’s death in December 2011, there has been much speculation about what kind of regime he will lead. Will the Western-educated Kim move to modernize his country and open it up to the outside world? Or will he take a hard-line, military-first approach to governance like his father?
Kim presents himself as a younger, more huggable version of his beloved grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and there is some indication he’s interested in change. He has reportedly increased the flow of workers and officials to neighboring China, both to bring in cash for the strained regime and to study Chinese-style capitalism.
But in the end, it may not be entirely up to Kim when and how his country modernizes. Despite the culture of fear that permeates North Korean society, food shortages and the Gulag-style prison camps that hold an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners, there are signs that the government is losing its iron grip.
Some televisions in the border region, for example, are now able to pick up programming from neighboring China, providing some North Koreans access to news from outside the country. USB drives, MP3 players and DVDs are regularly smuggled across the border, and surveys of people who manage to sneak across the border into China each year suggest that around half of them had watched a foreign DVD while living in North Korea.
Smuggled Chinese smartphones have allowed people in the border regions surreptitious access to the Internet, and the phones have also allowed many North Koreans to learn about what’s happening in the outside world by speaking with their relatives in South Korea.
Illegal marketplaces, where individual traders squat on dusty street corners to peddle cigarettes, socks, vegetables and anything else they can get, have been instrumental in fueling not only a shadow economy but in creating a new way for people to share information and network. Migrant workers and traders, who cross to China and back, return not only with goods but with knowledge of the outside world.
Many officials are bribed to turn a blind eye to the markets. But even without the payoffs, it would be difficult for the regime to crack down on enterprises that are supplying people with necessities the government cannot. The black market has allowed many to break away from their reliance on the regime.
“The change signals emerging since Kim Jong Un took over can only be fully understood by taking into account the bottom-up pressures,” said Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for the group Liberty in North Korea. Kim, he said, will have to find a way “to adapt to these changes if he wants to have a long-term career as leader.”
North Koreans won’t be living in Gangnam style any time soon. But the more they can break through the government’s information blockade and learn about life outside the Hermit Kingdom, the more the regime will have to adapt and change.
Laura Ling is host of the documentary series E! Investigates and the coauthor of Somewhere Inside: One Sister’s Captivity in North Korea and the Other’s Fight to Bring Her Home.