A Growing North Korean K-pop Idol Industry

In the 90s the South Korean government established the Kpop industry that today has millions of loyal fans worldwide. Coupled with Korean dramas, this has surged interest in the culture of its parent country in waves – or Hallyu. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has also taken an interest in idol groups, forming girl bands and recently attending a concert with Southern idols. If reunification is someday on the horizon, could a united Korea completely dominate with exports of music and other related media?

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Last night I conducted my usual Sunday ritual of signing into my old, abandoned twitter account and quickly typing snarky comments on my mobile about the ladies of Real Housewives of Atlanta. This is in stark contrast to my current twitter account, In Asian Spaces, which you should totally follow today because I sometimes retweet funny stuff. I say sometimes because I don’t care for twitter much but it is a necessary evil and one more tolerable than Facebook. I prefer Reddit, Instagram and of course Tumblr where it seems I fit into the mesh more. But the blue bird does have its moments, and for that I am thankful.

I came across a trending topic last night regarding North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un. A ‘Spring is Coming’ concert was held in the North’s East Pyongyang Grand Theatre with a lineup of popular South Korean artists and a spotlight on the K-pop girl group Red Velvet. Kim reportedly “made time” for the event in his schedule, bringing along his wife Ri Sol Ju. Tensions between the North and the South have eased considerably, and this seems like a good sign with the upcoming summit scheduled in late April.

I would really like the two countries to unite. North Koreans are living under terrible conditions and so many people have been separated from family…generations just cut off from one another. As with Vietnam and Germany before, I hope that in my lifetime at least the two countries that never should have been separated will come together once again. I am an American with no intricate knowledge of political nuances, but I just don’t think it is right for a people to be divided and pitted against itself. It simply makes no sense to me. I am reminded of Youtuber’s like Indonesian Jaka Parker and North Korean defector Sunny that show and speak of the living conditions.

(Although it seems Sunny’s channel was deleted for some reason after a recent live stream. I hope she is okay…)

Two years ago on my now defunct YouTube channel, I made a video on one of North Korea’s Idol Groups, The Moranbong Band (or Moran Hill Orchestra). It was a girl group hand-picked by the ‘hermit country’ leader himself. If I remember correctly, they were whisked away before a scheduled appearance in China and went off the radar for a while in 2016. The fear was that the women had been secretly subjected to a firing squad purge amongst other possible options.

The group seems to still be going strong, its leader Hyon Song-Wol accompanying a Northern delegation to inspect venues a month before the Olympic Games where the two countries marched unified under one banner. I can’t seem to find any evidence on whether or not they performed at the PyeongChang 2018 games, but the night before the events the North Korean Samjiyon Orchestra held live performances. It doesn’t seem to be the same band, although they have been active since 2009.

I recently read this article that wrote about some Nickelodeon show called Make It Pop. It follows three teens who start a band called XOIQ which tries to emulate current music idols and capitalize on the popularity of Kpop in America. It later goes into the formation of the Korean pop industry by the Ministry of Culture to create a commodity of eternal cool (very similar to the Cool Japan campaign and its relation to Harajuku fashions or anime). I’d always wondered how Kpop became a global phenomenon and its influence on Hallyu, or the Korean Wave.

News reports of this goodwill concert make me wonder if North Korea will align itself more heavily in the politics of Kpop. “North Korea often taps into music to heighten and pronounce the socialist ideology”. Even if the North falls, I believe their idols could bridge the cultural gap between the two nations.

I spoke about my relationship with Korean culture and how despite misunderstandings I want to appreciate the country and its people. I enjoy watching Kdrama (especially anything with Lee Min Ho – is he still in military training?) and although I am not into Kpop due to social reasons (obsessive fans, rapper’s culture vulture tendencies, ongoing blackface issues…) I will be keeping tabs on the idol industries of both countries.

Do you enjoy Korean Pop culture? Have you been to Kcon or other conventions? What do you think about the future of North Korean Idols, even after a reunification? Leave a comment with your thoughts, I’d love to hear from you! Also be sure to follow us for more updates on idol culture in Korea.

Convenience Stores Are Calling Me

There is one Korean convenience store I know of in New York. It’s called H Mart, and I swear to you there have been many a times I have tried to find it to realize a block later I simply walked past it. I don’t know what it is, but Asian convenience stores are so easy to miss. There are no flashy signs, no markers that it is a store…hell now that I think about it the Sunrise Mart location downtown actually has this creepy (somewhat) marked elevator you have to jump in to get to the goods on the second floor. But what if I told you that I found a Korean convenience store, but I’m not sure I know anything else about it…Read on.

As I mentioned, I only know of one Korean grocer. I usually frequent Japanese grocers and convenience stores mainly because I know more about those foods and can read most labels. Thinking back, I’m not even sure if M2M is considered a general Asian convenience store. I’ve visited three different locations and each had a good amount of Japanese goods (i.e. an aisle of Pocky), one or two things in Chinese and tons of ramyeon.

Last night, I had a dream that I was in Korea. This was strange off the bat, since that country is fairly low on Asian countries I’d like to visit. Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, Cambodia, and Vietnam are a few places that rank highly on my mental list. I’ve studied Japanese language, history, and customs nearly half my life and it’s something I’m very passionate about. I appreciate traditional Chinese culture and took half a year of Mandarin – something that luckily has still stuck with me. I also learned simplified Chinese characters before studying formal Japanese, so it helped a lot with understanding Kanji.

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That being said, I would have a degree of language survival skills in Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. I know HK’s main language is Cantonese, but there is some crossover from what I’ve heard. Singapore has four official languages, English and standardized Mandarin being two of them. (Tamil and Malay being the others)

Macau is Portuguese, but I studied Spanish and Italian for a few years. I once heard Portuguese referred to as “drowning Spanish” by an old HS teacher which, unfortunately, has become my mental associate for it.  The last two countries don’t bother me language-wise, and I just feel like it’d be okay since I would most likely go by tour with guides. Aside from what I’ve picked up from watching Kdrama, Hangul eludes me.

The language barrier aside, I also don’t know much about the culture or its food. I’ve never had good experiences when I tried making Korean friends in the past so I’ve never really bothered to learn. That is to say, I didn’t really meet many Japanese people until I started work at the cultural center – but my (unsavory) encounters with Koreans over the years have stained my perception of their country. It’s terrible to have a forlorn attitude toward a country, but I do.  Just typing this is bringing back memories of a high school friend I had who was half Korean.

Her mom spoke the language but never taught her and I just thought that was really cool at the time. I wasn’t exposed to much diversity when I attended private schools, but when I went to a public high school I relished the opportunity to talk to anyone. I went over her house with a group of friends and the next day during the lunch period she told me I probably shouldn’t come back over. I asked why and she told me that her mom didn’t know everyone’s names. I sympathized, as I have a hard time remembering names myself. I’m much better with faces.  She continued to say that her mom called her best friends buddies (the entire group) Tiger’s friends and that she just called me “that black girl, the black one…” you get the idea. Obviously his name wasn’t Tiger, but you can infer my meaning.

That really hurt me and after that I told her I couldn’t be her friend anymore and never spoke to her again. It wasn’t her fault her mom felt that way, but she did nothing to stand up for me and why should I be involved in a situation like that? Why put myself in a situation like that, when there are so many more people in this world who won’t be complete idiots? I’ve tried making Korean friends all those years later, and similar things have always happened so I stopped trying.

So again, South Korea is very low on places I would willingly visit. I’ve never encountered such hostility with other Asian groups, and I usually get along with everyone. It just hasn’t happen yet with them.

In the dream, for some reason I was staying with a friend I’d never met at her apartment. I’d only been in the country one or two days. I realized I hadn’t visited a convenience store and I was leaving back to the states soon. The friend called a cab for me and gave instructions to the driver to bring me to the airport in Hangul. I wanted to ask if there was a shop on the way to the airport, and took out my phone and tried to use a translation app. He read it and then started speaking in English. I told him I wasn’t sure he spoke English and explained where I wanted to go. He agreed to wait for me and I went into this blue-green building that seemed to be under construction. When I walked inside there was a place for hot foods and the counter you could normally sit at by the window was covered due to construction.

There was a spot in the corner that sold these novelty items, some sort of cutesy characters on mirrors and other similar things. They were a brand but I couldn’t read the characters. The store also had snacks around and a lot of baked goods. I grabbed cream puffs and a variety of other similar pastries – one of each. I knew the brand when I was asleep, but upon waking I can’t for the life of me remember what I saw. It was an English name.  I struggled to pay but I got the goods and took a last look around before leaving. People were eating in a corner and other people were just doing their own thing paying me absolutely no mind. No foreigner stares. It was nice. I went back to the taxi driver and he drove me another ten minutes (maybe a thirty-minute walk) to the airport. Then I woke up.

I felt strange after that dream. It made me want to visit Korea even if for a day to try convenience store foods. There are also some really beautiful neighborhoods and I am a sucker for historical building.  I felt comfortable there, and that is what is really messing with me. Maybe I should keep an open mind regarding things like this?

I didn’t plan on writing about some of the things I did. I guess writing is magical in that way, you go in with one idea and it evolves into something else. I graduated high school in 2010, and the incident I spoke of happened when I was in 10th grade, so 2008. Almost ten years ago. Literally something I hadn’t thought about in years just randomly came out and fit itself into a blog post. It was cathartic to pen it out to all of you reading.

I probably won’t post about these situations much, as I thankfully don’t have many bad experiences to share. But if I do, know that I hesitated greatly before posting it. I never want to dissuade anyone from visiting a place based on my experiences. I’m sure South Korea is a really great place to visit, but I’ve just never had good experiences with its people in America.

That was years ago, and things can always change. This blog is also named “In Asian Spaces” because I enjoy all Asian cultures, even if I mainly focus on Japan. If you’ve visited South Korea before, what was your favorite food you tried while there? Do you have an experience you would like to share – good or bad? Leave it in the comments, I would love to hear from you! Be sure to follow us for more stories and coming conversations about snacks!