Those of us with our noses in the strategic and diplomatic issues surrounding the Korean peninsula don't pay anywhere near enough attention to popular culture and what it can tell us about the regime. Jean Lee, who opened the Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang and is now a fellow at the Wilson Center, has written a fascinating short brief for the Korea Economic Institute on new directions in North Korean television. Lee is perfectly aware that these shows are part of a wider propaganda effort. The four shows she considers each feature “an archetype of the populace Kim wants to cultivate: Pyongyang elites, aspiring athletes, young military officials, and students. Each drama also serves as an advertisement for the party, promoting the vision of what Kim Jong-un wants to see in his people.”
But this is not the film industry of old, which strained credulity with its over-the-top patriotism, penchant for historical drama, emotionalism, and the unsubtle nature of the messaging. Rather, Lee shows how the TV industry has modernized, mimicking the production values of South Korean television and taking a lighter, humanizing touch. Party messages are mixed with romance, comedy, fashion, and the travails—even hardships—of daily life. One comedy revolves around a high-rise apartment building in Pyongyang, housed by a happy proletariat; much of the drama centers around the elevator, itself a statement of accomplishment. Another drama is devoted to the country’s scientific ambitions, charting the story of star middle school students navigating a science competition. A third drama traces interactions of a naval officer with a caring populace, but in largely civilian settings.
Lee has several takeaways. Although plying a new generation with subtle messaging about the accomplishments of the regime, the shows also legitimate a space for the family and the private sphere. Lee goes farther, arguing that the shows “subtly address some of the societal fissures in North Korean society today, including frustrations with the lack of power and running water, youthful rebelliousness, marital tensions, and [even] defection.” As always, the core questions are political. Does this normalization spell a lighter regime touch: in effect, an accommodation of the interests of a new urban elite? Or does it show an authoritarian regime that is simply more adept at social control, reaching into a more sophisticated toolbox and drawing the audience away from potentially more subversive South Korean fare? Our bet is on the latter, but dictatorships don’t necessarily control social change, and Lee captures that ambiguity well. A must read.