K-pop and fancy sneakers: Kim Jong Un’s cultural revolution

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North Korean pop culture, long dismissed by critics as a kitschy throwback to the dark days of Stalinism, is getting a major upgrade under leader Kim Jong Un. (AP)
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The changes are being seen in everything from television dramas and animation programs to the variety and packaging of consumer goods, which have improved significantly under Kim. (AP)
Updated 13 February 2019
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K-pop and fancy sneakers: Kim Jong Un’s cultural revolution

  • Change in North Korea comes cautiously and anyone who openly criticizes the government or leadership or is seen as a threat can expect severe repercussions
  • But there appears to be more of a willingness under Kim to experiment around some of the edges

PYONGYANG, North Korea: Dancers in hot pants. Factories pumping out Air Jordan lookalikes. TV dramas that are actually fun to watch.
North Korean pop culture, long dismissed by critics as a kitschy throwback to the dark days of Stalinism, is getting a major upgrade under leader Kim Jong Un.
The changes are being seen in everything from television dramas and animation programs to the variety and packaging of consumer goods, which have improved significantly under Kim. Whether it’s a defensive attempt to keep up with South Korea or an indication that Kim is willing to embrace aspects of Western consumer culture that his predecessors might have viewed as suspiciously bourgeois isn’t clear.
“The most important thing for us is to produce a product that suits the people’s tastes,” Kim Kyong Hui of the Ryuwon Shoe Factory told The Associated Press recently in the facility’s showroom, which is filled with dozens of kinds of shoes for running, volleyball, soccer — even table tennis. “The respected leader Kim Jong Un has instructed us to closely study shoes from all over the world and learn from their example,” she added, pointing to a pair of flame-red high-top basketball shoes.
To be sure, North Korea remains one of the most insular countries in the world. Change comes cautiously and anyone who openly criticizes the government or leadership or is seen as a threat can expect severe repercussions. But there appears to be more of a willingness under Kim to experiment around some of the edges.
The most visible upgrades are on television and its normal menu of propaganda programs and documentaries in praise of the leaders.
Viewers of the main state-run TV network — the only channel that can be seen anywhere in the country — are now stopping their routines to watch the latest episodes of “The Wild Ginseng Gatherers of the Imjin War,” a historical drama set in the late 16th century, when Korea was struggling against a Japanese invasion.
The anti-Japan, nationalistic theme is nothing new. A similar theme was used for Kim Jong Un’s first big contribution to the television lineup, an animated series reviving a popular comic from his father’s era called “The Boy General” that made its debut in 2015. The animation, set in the Koguryo period when Korea was fighting off Chinese incursions, was such a hit that people would stop whatever they were doing to watch it. A Boy General game was created for mobile phones. New episodes are believed to be forthcoming.
What the TV drama, first aired last July, and the Boy General animation share that’s new is their high production values.
The acting in the movie is grittier and more compelling, the plots more engaging and the sets and costumes are decidedly more elaborate than previous projects. Even the dialogue spoken in Japanese by the villains, played of course by North Korean actors, is generally accurate, though delivered with a heavy North Korean accent. The Boy General, meanwhile, makes skillful use of computer effects and is visually on par with some of the best animation in the world.
The improvements reflect an awareness within Kim’s regime that the North Korean public is increasingly familiar with foreign pop culture despite severe restrictions that make it impossible for most to travel abroad or freely experience foreign movies, music or books.
That familiarity is particularly true of the North Korean elite, who are accustomed to seeing brand name products from Dior to Sony on the shelves of upscale stores in Pyongyang, the capital. Cheap knockoffs from China are common in marketplaces around the country.
Watching South Korean movies or listening to South Korean music is illegal. But a lot makes its way over the border and, even for those who would never dream of taking that risk, the officially approved cultural fare isn’t entirely void of foreign treats.
Bollywood films are popular in state-run cinemas — 2009’s “Three Idiots” with Aamir Khan, for example, was recently shown in a cinema just across the street from Kim Il Sung Square. North Korea’s educational channel regularly features long clips from foreign documentaries, and dog-eared Harry Potter books are among the most popular items at the People’s Grand Study House, North Korea’s biggest library.
North Korea’s “approach to the influx of foreign media has been to ‘modernize’ media production to provide an attractive and competitive product that caters to younger generations for whom older productions are no longer attractive,” said Geoffrey See, the founder of the Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based non-profit that supports change in North Korea through exposure to knowledge and information in business, entrepreneurship and law.
“For consumer goods, it also ties into a state policy to encourage more domestic production and import substitution,” he said.
Kim’s first attempt to update the pop culture scene started almost as soon as he assumed power in late 2011 with the creation of the Moranbong Band, an ensemble of female vocalists and musicians who are the “soft face” of his regime.
Although the members all belong to the Korean People’s Army, they are known for performing in miniskirts and wearing their hair fashionably short. They have released dozens of songs, all of which get lots of exposure through concert tours, DVDs and airtime on television.
They are beginning to look a bit passe, however.
In February last year, North Korea sent some of its top musicians, including a female quintet that performed in black shorts and red tops, south of the Demilitarized Zone to perform during South Korea’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Two months later, Kim was in the audience as the South Korean girl group Red Velvet put on what is believed to be the first real K-pop show ever held in Pyongyang. The North Korean act that performed in South Korea was so well received that Kim sent them to Beijing last month for another goodwill tour.
Still, military orchestras and classically trained vocalists who perform in traditional “Choson-ot” gowns remain the mainstay of the Pyongyang musical scene. The girl band’s performance in Beijing was backed up by the state’s military chorus and orchestra, all in full uniform.
More importantly, there has been no effort to delink the arts from politics.
When the musical group returned to Pyongyang, Kim urged them to continue to “conduct original artistic activities pulsating with the party’s ideology” and act “courageously as mouthpieces of the party,” according to state media.


Royale rumble: ‘Apex Legends’ smashing ‘Fortnite’ records

Updated 20 February 2019
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Royale rumble: ‘Apex Legends’ smashing ‘Fortnite’ records

  • “Apex Legends” has charged into the market and smashed “Fortnite” records for downloads and viewership since its release three weeks ago
  • Like “Fortnite” and “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds,” “Apex” is free to download and play, making its money by selling outfits and other upgrades for use in the game

NEW YORK: For the first time since its meteoric rise, “Fortnite” is no longer a no-doubt victory royale atop the video game industry.
“Apex Legends” — a battle royale from Electronic Arts — has charged into the market and smashed “Fortnite” records for downloads and viewership since its release three weeks ago. Tyler “Ninja” Blevins and other streaming stars have powered that surge, as has the emergence of an 18-year-old “Apex” superstar. Esports teams are already scrambling to sign talented players and invest long-term, while others are raising concerns about overcommitting to the suddenly volatile battle royale genre.
Developed by Respawn Entertainment and published by EA, “Apex” has shaken the industry by building on many of its shining successes. It has pulled popular elements from other battle royales — a type of video game where players are dropped into a map and fight in a last-man-standing format against up to 100 other gamers — while making a few key changes.
Like “Fortnite” and “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds,” “Apex” is free to download and play, making its money by selling outfits and other upgrades for use in the game. Among its key differences: “Apex” players compete exclusively in teams of three and can choose characters with varying abilities, features essential to team-based esports like “League of Legends” and “Overwatch.”
The game also went hard after the existing battle royale audience. EA recruited Blevins, Richard “KingRichard” Nelson and other famous gamers, asking them to put down “Fortnite” and stream “Apex” following its release Feb. 4. Blevins alone has over 13 million subscribers on Twitch, immediately giving “Apex” a massive audience. It’s unclear if EA paid those influencers to play the game, and EA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“Apex” had 25 million downloads in its first week, crushing the “Fortnite” mark of 10 million over its first two weeks after launching in 2017.
“I think ‘Apex’ has caught everybody by storm,” said Andy Miller, CEO of NRG Esports, which rosters teams across various video game titles. “They did a phenomenal job of getting the influencers to play it first, feeding the market on Twitch and then watching everybody starting to play the game, and the game is good.”
Six days after the game launched, NRG announced it was recruiting “Apex” players, making it the first esports organization to seek a pro specifically for that title. General manager Jaime Cohenca led the search, combing through applications and Twitch streams. With the game being so new, Cohenca wasn’t entirely sure what he was looking for other than an “exceptional talent.”
He “knew immediately” when he came across Dizzy.
Coby “Dizzy” Meadows is an 18-year-old from Florida, and he is believed to be the best “Apex” player in the world. NRG signed him Feb. 12, and later that day, Meadows made major waves in the esports community by killing 33 of his 59 opponents in one match — a viral moment that generated nearly 500,000 views on YouTube alone. The next day, Meadows teamed up with Blevins and Nelson, also an NRG player, to win the $200,000 Twitch Rivals Apex Legends tournament against a lineup of streaming megastars.
Behind big draws for Dizzy, Ninja and KingRichard, “Apex” smashed another “Fortnite” record that day: 8.28 million hours of “Apex” were streamed on Twitch, topping the “Fortnite” mark of 6.6 million from July 20, per The Esports Observer.
Meadows has played regularly with Blevins and Nelson since. They won another tournament together later that week, and in the finals, Meadows had as many kills on his own as the entire opposing team.
“We knew this was a kid we had to take a flyer on,” Cohenca said. “Dizzy was a rock star.”
The question now: What comes next for “Apex,” “Fortnite,” and the stars and companies building up around their popularity? No doubt, NRG’s fast move on Meadows has paid off, and other top esports organizations have since begun recruiting their own “Apex” pros. But it’s still not clear what kind of scene they’re staffing up for.
Epic Games, the developer behind “Fortnite,” hasn’t prioritized that game’s competitive sphere in the same way that companies behind “League of Legends” or “Overwatch” have. Top “Fortnite” players like Blevins aren’t necessarily stars because they win every tournament. Ninja is a skilled gamer, for sure, but what has separated him is that he’s entertaining, a talent that pairs well with a goofier game like “Fortnite.”
“Apex” lacks those cartoonish vibes, and its rules and structure could lend it better to competitive esports — where skill and teamwork become more important than engaging on Twitch. EA has experience building leagues around its games, too, most notably with sports titles like Madden and FIFA.
Right now, it’s unclear where “Apex” is going, and for how long it can hold that space. That’s part of why Ari Segal, CEO at Immortals, has been hesitant to invest in battle royale players. He remains cautious, especially now that “Apex” has drawn up such a spectacular blueprint for entering the market.
“It’s a well-oiled flywheel that likely means new battle royale games will increasingly be able to launch to faster and larger success, at least initially,” he said.
Immortals and NRG are at opposite ends of that spectrum, in many ways. NRG already has plans to build out a full “Apex” team so it’s ready to put a talented squad in the field no matter the competitive and streaming structure. It also plans to maintain its “Fortnite” roster, which features entertaining streamers like Nelson.
Segal’s concern is that if one battle royale can so quickly pull eyeballs from the others, how do you build around each title? Formerly an executive with the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, his ambitions are to turn Immortals into a longstanding franchise like those in traditional sports. Quickly turning over rosters to keep up with the hot new thing isn’t part of his plan.
“We believe that by selling sizzle, your customer is buying sizzle, and that by definition will flame out,” Segal said. “We’re not selling sizzle; we’re building community.”