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Hairstyles for change

Posted December. 13, 2010 11:31,   


“Hairstyles alone allow one to determine whether he or she watched ‘Autumn in My Heart (a hit TV drama in South Korea).’ Such hairstyles show styles that look different from those in a socialist nation.” This was said by a 20-something North Korean defector from Hoeryong, North Hamkyong Province, in a video clip shown Friday at a seminar hosted by the People for Successful Corean (Korean) Reunification, a civic group for North Korean human rights. News reports say young North Koreans are “crazy” for hairstyles of the actor who played the drama’s hero, Song Seung-heon, and the actress who played the heroine, Song Hye-kyo. The drama helped to launch “hallyu (Korean Wave)” when it aired in 2000. South Korean TV dramas started being smuggled into the North some 10 years ago and are slowly transforming North Korean society.

Kang Dong-wan, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said, “Watching South Korean (drama) videos, North Koreans have changed their mental perceptions and seek cultural mimicking, thinking to themselves, ‘I wish I could live in such a country.’” He said the videos have changed the people’s way of thinking in the North and served as a catalyst for North Koreans to risk their lives to flee from the North. Many North Koreans live near the inter-Korean border in Hwanghae Province, and people in high-rise buildings in Pyongyang watch South Korean videos by buying TV sets made in the South or multipurpose TV receivers smuggled in from China.

A South Korean professor well versed in the North’s situation said, “Only unofficial culture has emerged in certain regions and social classes given rising interest in the South, and the trend cannot yet be construed as the Korean Wave.” Nevertheless, what he said about the North is amazing enough. Certain ranking officials of the ruling Workers’ Party are using TV sets, refrigerators and washing machines made by South Korea’s LG Electronics or Samsung Electronics at their homes, while the wives of senior government officials use South Korean cosmetics brands such as Seolhwasu. The 10 most popular products used by the North’s elite in 2008 according to The Daily NK, a Seoul-based online news site on the North, included the South Korean brand rice cooker Cuckoo. North Korean authorities ban South Korean pop culture but cannot go so far as to control the domestic lives of senior Workers` Party officials.

Despite its strict control and restrictions over its people, the North will find it difficult to completely block their aspiration for freedom and curiosity for the outside world. East Germany was absorbed by West Germany partially because East Germans learned of and aspired to achieve their neighbor’s level of economic development while watching West German TV and radio programs. If DVDs showing South Korean pop culture are flown into North Korea, they can provide leisure for North Koreans and help realize a free world in a natural fashion.

Editorial Writer Kwon Sun-taek (maypole@donga.com)