Sino-NK 2013 Rewind: Pop Politics and the Narrative of the Bizarre

By | December 20, 2013 | No Comments

The second of this week’s posts in Sino-NK 2013 Rewind examines North Korean cultural production from what we might term the “outside;” that is, addressing that strand of politico-cultural production directed at the external and wider world. While 2013 has been an extraordinary year for all manner of reasons (some quite grim), when it comes to North Korea, it is fair to say that in terms of the “softer power” of cultural and media manipulation it has been a tumultuous period.

Sherri L. Ter Molen, Sino-NK’s Outreach Coordinator and a Thomas C. Rumble Fellow at Wayne State University tracks, in this piece, the lines of flight between North Korean digital technology, Dennis Rodman’s interest in and apparent friendship with Kim Jong-un, Jang Sung-taek, and Angry Birds. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Sino-NK 2013 Rewind: Pop Politics and the Narrative of the Bizarre

by Sherri L. Ter Molen

There are no small parts in the theater, only small actors. That said, North Korea can’t be called a small actor on the world stage; it is a giant despite its geographical size, salient in the media for its many exploits. In 2013, the execution of Jang Sung-taek, the imprisonment of Kenneth Bae and Merrill Newman, constant talk of gulags, and a third nuclear test all kept the DPRK firmly in the limelight. These news stories are the ones that have tended to shape the questions posed in public opinion polls. However, there is another narrative in play, one composed of a series of media and their themes, and these also shape our opinions of “the world’s most secret state”– through stories of technology, sports, literature, music, and fashion.

The Samjiyon tablet’s analog antenna is testament of the digital divide at the 38th parallel. | Image: Martin Williams (North Korea Tech) YouTube Channel

The Samjiyeon tablet’s analog antenna is testament of the digital divide along the 38th parallel. | Image: Martin Williams (North Korea Tech) YouTube Channel

Pyongyang Unplugged | Contrasted against tech savvy South Korea, North Korea is not the peninsular Silicon Valley, and during a highly publicized visit in January, Google’s Eric Schmidt even warned the DPRK that its virtual isolation threatens to cripple the country’s economy and leave it behind the rest of the world. Perhaps unwilling to fulfill Schmidt’s prophecy, a few months later the DPRK unveiled its Samjiyeon tablet, a device without Internet access but pre-loaded with a (perhaps pirated) copy of Angry Birds. Strangely, the media outside the DPRK was enthralled by this fact. North Korea just cannot win. It is considered backward because the majority of its population is not plugged into the World Wide Web, but at the same time it is considered bizarre because its tablet-wielding technophiles may be as addicted to avian amusement as 1.7 billion other gamers from across the globe.

Rodman buys a one-way ticket to paradise. | Image: Foot Locker’s YouTube Channel

Rodman buys a one-way ticket to paradise. | Image: Foot Locker’s YouTube Channel

Hoops, Hoofs, and Hip Hop | In the meantime, Dennis Rodman beckoned in the era of DPRK-US basketball diplomacy in February when he sat alongside Kim Jong-un during an exhibition match between the DPRK national team and the Harlem Globetrotters. It was a peculiar match-up, since the Globetrotters are as much a comedy troupe as a basketball club–or perhaps not so peculiar since Dennis Rodman is both spectacle and athlete. Laugh as we may, Rodman has established what Washington has not: a direct line of communication with Pyongyang.

Rodman, an unlikely diplomat who sees his unique position primarily as an opportunity to boost his own fame, looks as if he is in on the joke. In November, just before his third trip to North Korea, he appeared in a commercial for Foot Locker in which he buys a one-way ticket to North Korea, much to the amusement of an overzealous ticket agent and to the delight of other passengers waiting in line, who enthusiastically applaud the fact that the United States is about to rid itself of Rodman once and for all.

Rodman’s romance with the DPRK may seem profane in more ways than one, but he is apolitical. As are rappers Pacman and Peso, who traveled to North Korea in November to record a music video off the back of a crowdfunding campaign. Adding fuel to the fire of the narrative of the bizarre, the story of these pop culture personalities appeared on celebrity gossip and entertainment sites such as Perez Hilton and Billboard; these may indeed be the primary sources of information about the DPRK for some of those who would otherwise have little to no interest in the country.


Haute Hermit Couture | Image: APH OC–North Korea by Lo-wah

Unflattering Fiction and Fashion Faux Pas | North Korea’s pop presence is  not all fun and games. In April, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Johnson, an associate professor in the creative writing program at Stanford University, spent years researching North Korea and finally traveled to the DPRK in 2007 before publishing his award-winning novel. Of course, since information on North Korea is almost entirely limited to economic, military, and political topics, Johnson’s book was inspired by “a memoir by a man who spent nine years in a North Korean labor camp;” hardly apolitical and, therefore, likely to appeal to a very different demographic than the music of Pacman and Peso.

On the other hand, readers of the book are just as likely to be literary types as Koreans, Korean Studies scholars, or other Koreanophiles, and Johnson’s fictional account may be the most detailed and in-depth look into the DPRK that these individuals, not so unlike Pacman and Peso fans, have ever encountered. Interestingly, despite the grotesque violence and despicable acts committed by the characters, this particular cultural artifact seems to have escaped the media narrative of the bizarre.

Antonio Gramsci finds that the press, pop culture, and a slew of other artifacts and institutions influence public opinion. The problem is in Mark Twain’s old adage: “Write what you know.” What do we know about North Korea? We think that in 2013 nine members of Unhasu Orchestra and Wangjaesan Art Troupe were, perhaps, executed. We also believe, based on new satellite photos, that North Korea’s gulags are growing larger and that the country may have restarted its nuclear reactor.

These events are not unique; they are the same type of hard-core news story that is reported year after year, reinforcing our belief that North Korea is a human rights violator and a military threat. If Johnson had written anything other than a story of brutality and intrigue, The Orphan Master’s Son might have been dismissed as unauthentic and even offensive, as Elle discovered when it paired North Korean combat kitsch with high fashion. The backlash that came in response to Elle’s September issue was pointed, with critics stating that it is inappropriate to speak lightly about a country that commits intolerable human rights violations.

Herein, therefore, lies our struggle. We can laud The Orphan Master’s Son, perhaps because it fits the “Axis of Evil” narrative. The notion that North Koreans play Angry Birds, on the other hand, does not fit neatly into our perceptions. Why is it bizarre that North Koreans play video games or that the country hosts larger-than-life athletes and musicians?

Every country has pop culture, even those that keep large segments of the population behind bars and others that have started atrocious wars. Perhaps only the Pyongyang elites can afford Samjiyeon tablets, but if we imagine their children playing Angry Birds while their mothers nag them to do their homework, we may imagine a set of circumstances that are not so different from our own.

Conclusion | North Korea put on quite a show in 2013. When things became too quiet, it either orchestrated events to recapture the attention of the press, or simply stumbled into the public eye by the good grace of a literary genius or an ill-advised fashion editor. North Korea dominates more than its fair share of the world stage, but its pop culture may not occupy enough space in the theater of our minds. Our thoughts are crowded with purges, prisons, and nuclear proliferation, but if we made room then video games and pop personalities could add dimension to our understanding of the DPRK.

No Comments

  1. It would only add dimension to perceiving the elite who reside in and around Pyongyang. Mulling over video games and pop music doesn’t impart much enlightenment pertaining to the 120,000 people starving to death in penal camps, solely for the crime of being related to someone who fell victim to spurious and impenetrable anti-revolutionary charges.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.