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

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.


Alaska man discovers 50-year-old message in bottle from Russian Navy

Updated 19 August 2019

Alaska man discovers 50-year-old message in bottle from Russian Navy

  • Then Russian Navy Capt. Anatolii Prokofievich Botsanenko wrote the letter when he was a 36-year-old aboard the Sulak
ANCHORAGE, Alaska: A man discovered a 50-year-old letter in a bottle from the Russian Navy on the shores of western Alaska.
Tyler Ivanoff found the handwritten Russian letter early this month while gathering firewood near Shishmaref about 600 miles (966 kilometers) northwest of Anchorage, television station KTUU reported.
“I was just looking for firewood when I found the bottle,” Tyler Ivanoff said. “When I found the bottle, I had to use a screwdriver to get the message out.”
Ivanoff shared his discovery on Facebook where Russian speakers translated the message to be a greeting from a Cold War Russian sailor dated June 20, 1969. The message included an address and a request for a response from the person who finds it.
Reporters from the state-owned Russian media network, Russia-1, tracked down the original writer, Capt. Anatolii Prokofievich Botsanenko, KTUU reported.
He was skeptical he wrote the note until he saw his signature on the bottom.
“There — exactly!” he exclaimed.
The message was sent while the then 36-year-old was aboard the Sulak, Botsanenko said. Botsanenko shed tears when the Russian television reporter told him the Sulak was sold for scrap in the 1990s.
Botsanenko also showed the reporter some souvenirs from his time on the ship, including the autograph of the wife of a famous Russian spy and Japanese liquor bottles, the latter kept over his wife’s protests.
Ivanoff’s discovery of the bottle was first reported by Nome radio station KNOM.