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Saturday, June 19, 2021

The wrath of K-pop

Kim Jong-un is dictating hairstyles again. And affirming popular culture’s potential to be subversive.

By: Editorial | New Delhi |
Updated: June 12, 2021 7:48:23 am
Earlier this week, Kim reportedly called popular culture from South Korea a “vicious cancer” that is destroying the “attire, hairstyles, speech and behaviours” of young North Koreans.

There’s an apocryphal tale about The Grapes of Wrath and the Soviet Union. In the 1940s, the film based on John Steinbeck’s classic novel about the misery a family faces under capitalism — driving around California in search of food, shelter and dignity — was screened to show people behind the Iron Curtain just how depraved the West was. A riot ensued, because Stalin’s citizens were shocked to learn that in America, even the poor had cars. Kim Jong-Un, the hereditary communist dictator of North Korea, may not have heard this Cold War parable. But he certainly seems to be drawing lessons from it.

Earlier this week, Kim reportedly called popular culture from South Korea a “vicious cancer” that is destroying the “attire, hairstyles, speech and behaviours” of young North Koreans. Hairstyles — in fact, any form of personal expression — have been under strict control in North Korea. In 2015, it was reported that Kim ordered North Korean men to have the same hairstyle as his own and for women to maintain a bobbed cut similar to that of his wife.

Despite its apparent absurdity, there is a logic to the crackdown on culture from across the border. Kim’s diplomacy with the West has failed for now and the North Korean economy continues to languish. In such circumstances, images of the wealth, freedom and even frivolity of K-pop could be deemed to weaken the party-state’s grip on the people. For the youth of the country, constantly bombarded with images of a pompous leader, the prospect of a different life across the border — so close, yet so far — could make them question more than just the great leader’s grooming. K-pop might not have the gravitas of The Grapes of Wrath, but the consequences it could touch off for dictators may be just as dangerous.

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