It seems that everywhere I go, I run into the smiles of the flawless faces of the popular music idols and rising television and movie stars of South Korea. Although they may not be known as a part of what is mainstream popular culture in every location, somehow the South Korean singers, actors, and actresses have found their way into the hearts and onto the playlists of more than a few of my friends and acquaintances throughout the globe. The slim, well-dressed men and women of South Korean music groups and television dramas decorate bedroom walls and influence the fashion and tastes of many of the people I have encountered.
But to what extent has the South “Korean Wave” been able to captivate audiences in North Korea considering the division preventing exchange between the two halves of the Korean peninsula? Considering that the North Korean people in some regions can access South Korean broadcasts from satellites or purchase CDs with copies of television dramas from the black market, I can imagine that the South Korean Wave has gained popularity in North Korea as well. According to Park Jun Hyeong’s article, “Looking Like Hyun Bin or Kim Nam Joo,” on the DailyNK’s English language website, North Korea’s wealthier classes have particularly taken a keen interest in the idols of South Korean popular culture. As the article’s title would suggest, Hyun Bin, from the well-liked drama Secret Garden, and Kim Nam Joo, from the drama Queen of the Turn Around, have influenced the more affluent North Korean people’s takes on fashion and style. Many of the children of the more wealthy classes and cadres have become so enthusiastic about the characters that they encounter in the South Korean dramas, that, in their quest to imitate their favorite stars, they are willing to spend large sums of money to obtain similar items of clothing – something that outsiders would not expect of people in North Korea, considering the wealthy are not considered affluent by most standards outside of the nation’s borders.
However, the impression that the South Korean Wave has had on the North Korean youth is not completely limited to the wealthy class. The desire to mimic the stars of television shows has stimulated change in North Korea’s standards for acceptable fashion in general as well. In another article, “Push for Beauty Altering Official Curbs,” Park Jun Hyeong writes with Jeong Jae Sung that laws that had originally restricted fashion have been growing more lenient, especially since the passing of the former party leader Kim Jong Il. With less regulation on fashion and fewer crackdowns on what was once deemed inappropriate for the ideal Korean woman in particular, North Korea has seen a rise in the amount of women wearing skinny jeans and earrings and going under the knife for plastic surgery.
Although plastic surgery remains illegal in North Korea, the fervor to enhance one’s appearance, in a way that is connected to the growing prevalence and renown of South Korean idols, has led many doctors to take in patients for plastic surgery for a bit of money under the table. It has also urged less qualified doctors to join in the market by providing their services to the men and women of North Korea. Like in South Korea, double eyelids have become commonplace for the women who desire cosmetic surgery. One would expect such ambitions to enhance one’s appearance to have no place in North Korea since it is known for the famines that brought hardship to thousands of people. However, the North Korean people show that they are just as much subject to and involved in new developments in popular culture no matter how isolated a people they have been. The few that have had access to a more privileged lifestyle long for more opportunity just like their less privileged peers. They might not necessarily be attempting to defect since they are subject to less desperation, but they demonstrate their similarly eager longing to explore more options, opportunities, and forms of self-expression. Although unification is no simple feat, it would bring about more alternatives to the people of North Korea.