Some find the superficiality and commercialism of pop music troubling enough to justify ignoring the whole thing. However, if a music fan approaches pop music with some variety of critical consciousness, the pop music fan can use it to consider everything from personal values to national identity. If recent developments in the Korean Peninsula are any indication, pop music, a type of pop culture, can even play a role in improving international relations.
North Korea has traditionally been leery of South Korean and especially American pop culture. For years, the North Korean government attempted to suppress DVDs and thumb drives with pop cultural television shows, movies, and popular music. Often smuggled into North Korea from China, these pop cultural works struck the government as evidence of bourgeois decadence. Mere possession of South Korean or American pop culture was a criminal offense and could lead to a sentence in prison camp.
Knowing that their efforts would not be well-received, the South Korean Army sometimes blasted the songs of the girl-group Red Velvet on loudspeakers into North Korea. The enormously popular Red Velvet is known for its sexy dancing, scanty outfits, and coy lyrics. North Korea more than once threatened to use its artillery to destroy the loudspeakers and thereby defend the nation against the pop music threat.
With this history in mind, Red Velvet’s approved trip to North Korea at the beginning of April came as quite a surprise. The first South Korean singers to perform in North Korea in a decade, the five energetic young women performed at the Pyongyang Grand Theater in front of an enthusiastic audience. Kim Jong-un himself attended, shook hands with the members of Red Velvet, and appeared to enjoy their performance from his balcony seat.
Later, with plans for future Pyongyang concerts by South Korean singers in the works, Kim extolled the virtues of such pop cultural exchanges. “I thank you,” he said to South Korean leaders, “for bringing the gift of Red Velvet to Pyongyang citizens.” He also announced that recordings of the Red Velvet concert would be freely available on North Korean radio and television. Recognizing and enjoying Red Velvet on both sides of the border, Kim hoped, would improve relations between the two nations.
It is of course ironic that once-banned pop music appears to be contributing to detente and to the reduction of tensions between North and South Korea. But at the same time, this development is not really surprising. The peoples of both nations are part of the global community. Pop music, as superficial and mindless as it might seem on the surface, is a resource for those attempting to find greater personal fulfillment and create a more peaceful world. Surely Red Velvet’s music is better than the incessant noise of sabers rattling.