[Weekender] Why is Kim Jong-un tackling millennials, K-pop and slang?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has a new concern: how to control the country’s younger generation.

The 37-year-old leader warned in April that “a serious change” was taking place in the “ideological and mental state” of young North Koreans, and that their ideological education was vital for the party’s survival and from the country.

In addition, the reclusive regime severely cracked down on the dress, speaking habits and culture of North Korean millennials, also known as the Jangmadang generation, people in their 20s and 30s who grew up during the famine of the country in the mid-1990s.

For example, South Korean practices such as a woman calling her husband “oppa” – which means “older brother” but is often used to refer to a boyfriend or spouse – are prohibited. The same goes for South Korean-style clothing and displays of affection in public, such as cuddling on the street, the South Korean spy agency said last week.

Recently, Kim also called K-pop “vicious cancer” and said it corrupted “the clothes, hairstyles, speech and behavior” of young North Koreans, according to the New York Times. The leader also enacted a sweeping new law imposing severe penalties for those who consume or smuggle South Korean entertainment, which can include imprisonment or even execution.

The crackdown on what the North calls “anti-socialist acts” seems to reflect concern that if the younger generation – which has known capitalism and foreign culture – is not controlled, it could create cracks in the regime’s legitimacy. and potentially endanger Kim’s dynastic hold. over the country, observers say.

“Korean dramas and films have entered the country and the young North Korean generation is influenced by them, like the fashion styles and the way they speak,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Study Center. North Korean women from the Sejong Institute. “Such a transformation is visible in the country and Kim sees that it could threaten the North Korean system. ”

“Kim, who was educated in Switzerland, is well aware that K-pop or Western culture could easily infiltrate the younger generation and negatively impact their socialist system,” Yang Moo-jin said, professor at the University of the North. Korea Studies. “He knows these cultural aspects could put a strain on the system. So by eliminating them, Kim tries to avoid other problems in the future. ”

Generation Jangmadang: a force for change

A “jangmadang”, which literally translates to “market”, is a kind of black market that arose during the devastating famine of the country in the 1990s. Market stalls have become a central part of the northern economic system, where people led a double life between official state jobs and selling imported food and other goods to earn a living.

North Koreans born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up during the famine, relying on these markets for their survival, which made them known as the Jangmadang generation. Representing around 15% of the 25 million Northerners, this generation was exposed to capitalism from an early age, buying food and other goods on the black market rather than queuing for rations like their parents. and grandparents.

Growing up in economic uncertainty and in the absence of state rationing, this demographic tends to be individualistic and is more concerned with making money than sticking to ideology, according to the National Intelligence Service. They are largely indifferent to politics and lack allegiance to Kim Jong-un or the regime.

This generation grew up secretly watching South Korean drama series and listening to K-pop smuggled on USB drives from China. The glitzy TV soap operas gave them a glimpse into life south of the border, convincing them that the North was not the socialist paradise they had been taught to believe it was. Some defectors who settled in South Korea said it was the South Korean tragedies that motivated them to risk their lives crossing one of the world’s most fortified borders.

According to a survey of 116 North Korean defectors released last year by Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification, 47.4 percent said they frequently consumed television programs, dramas , South Korean movies and songs when they were in said they had only consumed it once or twice. Only 8.6% said they had never used it.

Concerned about the considerable influence of K-drama and K-pop, Kim Jong-un enacted the Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture Act in December. Under it, those caught in possession of South Korean material can face 15 years in prison – up from five years previously – while those who distribute it can face the death penalty, according to representative Ha Tae-keung. , was informed by the spy agency.

In May, the country’s official media warned its citizens against the influx of “capitalist culture”, saying that if it was not contained the country could “crumble like a wet wall”.

The newspaper also warned young people against the “exotic and decadent way of life” of capitalism.

With the generational change apparent in the upper echelon of the North, Kim, who is still in his thirties, views the ideology of his peers with concern as they too will play larger roles in the near future.

“As we saw during the last cabinet reshuffle, the age of civil servants has become younger, with people aged 40 to 50 being the majority. The elite business class has also been rejuvenated, ”said Cheong. “Rising a younger class could help the country’s economy, but Kim fears it will weaken their loyalty to the regime as well.”

Desperate times, tighter control

Strict ideological control and efforts to eradicate foreign culture are nothing new in the totalitarian state ruled by third-generation leader Kim. But as the North braces for an even more severe food crisis and worse economic hardship amid the pandemic, Kim is looking inward. Through repression, it seeks to consolidate its hold on power and to strengthen internal solidarity.

The isolated nation is said to be facing one of the worst economic situations since Kim took power in 2011. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the North to close the border with its largest trading partner, China, causing a fall Trade. Kim also admitted that his country faces food shortages, due to the pandemic and floods last year, which wreaked havoc on its agricultural sector.

The North also blames prolonged UN sanctions, imposed in response to the country’s nuclear weapons program, for the deepening economic crisis.

“With the North facing the ‘triple whammy’ of COVID-19, international sanctions and natural disasters, Kim fears the younger generation may question and challenge the regime if it does not tighten control,” said Park Won-gon, professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.

He stressed that the younger generation, which has experienced a market economy and some prosperity as it grows up, will feel even more disappointed by the regime’s failure to meet the challenges. They were the ones who also saw Kim Jong-un meet with US President Donald Trump in Singapore and Vietnam and believed changes were taking place.

But despite Kim’s high-stakes summit with Trump in 2018, nuclear talks collapsed as the two sides failed to agree on the details of how sanctions should be lifted in exchange for steps towards denuclearization.

By Ahn Sung-mi ([email protected])

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