Why North Korea is so afraid of K-pop

North Korea is doubling down on its culture war, warning citizens to stay away from all things South Korean — including its fashion, music, hairstyles and even slang.

In the past decade, South Korea has emerged as a formidable cultural force, with products from makeup to K-pop and K-drama finding enthusiastic fans around the world.

But one place trying to stop South Korean influence from permeating its borders is its neighbor to the north.

For decades, North Korea has been almost completely closed off from the rest of the world, with tight control over what information gets in or out. Foreign materials including movies and books are banned, with only a few state-sanctioned exceptions; those caught with foreign contraband often face severe punishment, defectors say.

Restrictions have softened somewhat in recent decades, however, as North Korea’s relationship with China expanded. Tentative steps to open up have allowed some South Korean elements, including parts of its pop culture, to seep into the hermit nation — especially in recent years, when relations thawed between the two countries.

But the situation in North Korea is now fast deteriorating — and strict rules have snapped back into place, in a crackdown reminiscent of its earlier, more isolated history.

Earlier this month, South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said after attending a briefing by the country’s spy agency that North Korea’s regime was implementing strict rules on how young people dress and speak. For instance, South Korean women often use the term “oppa” for their romantic partners — it’s now forbidden in the North. Instead, North Korean women must refer to their lovers as “male comrades,” said Ha.

Propaganda videos in the country also denounce behaviors that show “foreign influence,” such as public displays of affection. Those who violate the rules are the “sworn enemy of the revolution,” Ha said, citing South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.

Last Sunday, the regime blasted foreign ways of life in an article in state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun, urging young people to be “faithful to the calling of their country.”

“Struggle in the field of ideology and culture is a war without gunfire,” said the article, citing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Without specifically naming South Korea, it added that losing the culture war would “bring many times more serious consequences than on the battlefield.”

Clothing, hairstyles and language were “a reflection of the state of thought and spirit,” it added. “Even if young people sing and dance, they should sing and dance to the melodies and rhythms that fit the needs of the times and the national sentiment of our people, and flourish our style of culture.”

These restrictions may seem outlandish — but things like slang, innocuous on the surface, represent a much more complicated struggle over power and control, experts say. And North Korea’s tolerance for foreign influence is in constant flux, shifting alongside its economic wellbeing and international diplomacy.

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