K-pop is one of South Korea’s most popular cultural exports with a growing reach around the world — but it seems that not everyone is fan.
Over the weekend, an article published by a North Korean propaganda website accused K-pop record labels of engaging in “slave-like exploitation” of hugely successful bands like BTS and Blackpink.
The piece on North Korea’s Arirang Meari site claimed K-pop artists were “bound to unbelievably unfair contracts from an early age, detained at their training and treated as slaves after being robbed of their body, mind and soul by the heads of vicious and corrupt art-related conglomerates.”
The K-pop industry is notoriously grueling and tough to break into, but the North Korean article included no proof of its allegations. It was just several paragraphs long and cited “reports” in other media.
North Korea has long been accused of wide-scale human rights abuses, including subjecting political prisoners to forced labor and slave-like conditions, according to a landmark 2014 UN report.
The piece was likely part of a push by North Korean propagandists to crack down on foreign media. While Pyongyang’s strict censorship apparatus severely restricts the movies, music, television, newspapers and books its citizens can consume, technology has made it easier to smuggle in content from abroad, especially on USB sticks.
Defectors say average North Koreans caught consuming foreign content, especially from South Korea and the United States, often face severe punishment. Such laws historically have not deterred people from doing so, but the situation may be changing.
After years of poor economic performance, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to be doubling down on central planning as a way to spur growth, which he outlined as his top long-term priority for the regime at an important political meeting earlier this year. Some experts believe the renewed emphasis on government control extends to propaganda efforts and consumption of foreign content.
Though Kim’s regime has long cracked down on people watching or reading foreign material, North Korea’s rubber-stamp legislature passed a new law in December requiring citizens and organizations to prevent the “spread of the anti-socialist ideology” — in practice, that usually means any content that has not been approved by government censors.
Kim in February also suggested that greater controls on societal content could be coming. He called for a more “intensified struggle against the anti-socialist and non-socialist practices than ever before.”
Musical divergence on Korean Peninsula
Despite centuries of shared culture, music in communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea have evolved very differently since the Peninsula was split into two political entities after World War II.
K-pop has become a multibillion dollar industry with worldwide recognition. South Korea has even blasted K-pop across the border as part of its propaganda efforts in previous years when relations between the two Koreas were on ice.
Music in North Korea, meanwhile, is an important part of everyday life and serves as a key propaganda tool, lionizing the ruling Kim family and its fight against imperial aggression.
The monopoly North Korea exerts over creative expression makes the state’s songs — and thus their approved messages — uniquely pervasive.
“There’s no evidence that people are creating any of their own music outside of what’s centrally allowed,” ethnomusicologist and North Korea music expert Keith Howard said in an interview last year. “The only recording company is state-owned, and there are no performances that would be permitted outside what’s authorized.