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.


One million species risk extinction due to humans: draft UN report

Updated 23 April 2019
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One million species risk extinction due to humans: draft UN report

  • Biodiversity loss and global warming are closely linked, according to the 44-page Summary for Policy Makers
  • Delegates from 130 nations meeting in Paris from April 29 will vet the executive summary line-by-line

PARIS: Up to one million species face extinction due to human influence, according to a draft UN report obtained by AFP that painstakingly catalogues how humanity has undermined the natural resources upon which its very survival depends.
The accelerating loss of clean air, drinkable water, CO2-absorbing forests, pollinating insects, protein-rich fish and storm-blocking mangroves — to name but a few of the dwindling services rendered by Nature — poses no less of a threat than climate change, says the report, set to be unveiled May 6.
Indeed, biodiversity loss and global warming are closely linked, according to the 44-page Summary for Policy Makers, which distills a 1,800-page UN assessment of scientific literature on the state of Nature.
Delegates from 130 nations meeting in Paris from April 29 will vet the executive summary line-by-line. Wording may change, but figures lifted from the underlying report cannot be altered.
“We need to recognize that climate change and loss of Nature are equally important, not just for the environment, but as development and economic issues as well,” Robert Watson, chair of the UN-mandated body that compiled the report, said, without divulging its findings.
“The way we produce our food and energy is undermining the regulating services that we get from Nature,” he said, adding that only “transformative change” can stem the damage.
Deforestation and agriculture, including livestock production, account for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, and have wreaked havoc on natural ecosystems as well.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report warns of “an imminent rapid acceleration in the global rate of species extinction.”
The pace of loss “is already tens to hundreds of times higher than it has been, on average, over the last 10 million years,” it notes.
“Half-a-million to a million species are projected to be threatened with extinction, many within decades.”
Many experts think a so-called “mass extinction event” — only the sixth in the last half-billion years — is already under way.
The most recent saw the end of the Cretaceous period some 66 million years ago, when a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid strike wiped out most lifeforms.
Scientists estimate that Earth is today home to some eight million distinct species, a majority of them insects.
A quarter of catalogued animal and plant species are already being crowded, eaten or poisoned out of existence.
The drop in sheer numbers is even more dramatic, with wild mammal biomass — their collective weight — down by 82 percent.
Humans and livestock account for more than 95 percent of mammal biomass.
“If we’re going to have a sustainable planet that provides services to communities around the world, we need to change this trajectory in the next ten years, just as we need to do that with climate,” noted WWF chief scientist Rebecca Shaw, formerly a member of the UN scientific bodies for both climate and biodiversity.
The direct causes of species loss, in order of importance, are shrinking habitat and land-use change, hunting for food or illicit trade in body parts, climate change, pollution, and alien species such as rats, mosquitoes and snakes that hitch rides on ships or planes, the report finds.
“There are also two big indirect drivers of biodiversity loss and climate change — the number of people in the world and their growing ability to consume,” said Watson.
Once seen as primarily a future threat to animal and plant life, the disruptive impact of global warming has accelerated.
Shifts in the distribution of species, for example, will likely double if average temperature go up a notch from 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) to 2C.
So far, the global thermometer has risen 1C compared with mid-19th century levels.
The 2015 Paris Agreement enjoins nations to cap the rise to “well below” 2C. But a landmark UN climate report in October said that would still be enough to boost the intensity and frequency of deadly heatwaves, droughts, floods and storms.
Other findings in the report include:
- Three-quarters of land surfaces, 40 percent of the marine environment, and 50 percent of inland waterways across the globe have been “severely altered.”
- Many of the areas where Nature’s contribution to human wellbeing will be most severely compromised are home to indigenous peoples and the world’s poorest communities that are also vulnerable to climate change.
- More than two billion people rely on wood fuel for energy, four billion rely on natural medicines, and more than 75 percent of global food crops require animal pollination.
- Nearly half of land and marine ecosystems have been profoundly compromised by human interference in the last 50 years.
- Subsidies to fisheries, industrial agriculture, livestock raising, forestry, mining and the production of biofuel or fossil fuel energy encourage waste, inefficiency and over-consumption.
The report cautioned against climate change solutions that may inadvertently harm Nature.
The use, for example, of biofuels combined with “carbon capture and storage” — the sequestration of CO2 released when biofuels are burned — is widely seen as key in the transition to green energy on a global scale.
But the land needed to grow all those biofuel crops may wind up cutting into food production, the expansion of protected areas or reforestation efforts.