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Kim Jong Un’s love of K-pop signals progress, analysts say

April 13 (UPI) — Recent concerts by South Korean pop artists in Pyongyang show Kim Jong Un’s appreciation of pop culture and the performing arts, as well as signal a generational shift, analysts told UPI.

Ahead of upcoming summits with South Korea and the United States, a group of South Korean performers, including the popular girl group Red Velvet, performed in Pyongchang on April 1 — with Kim and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, in attendance.

While North Korea remains relatively isolated and Kim maintains a tight authoritarian grip on the country, the easing of tensions and the inter-Korea exchange that has followed the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are signs North Korea is taking a major step forward, says Michelle Cho, the Korea Foundation Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at McGill University.

“This particular concert, I thought was unique, because it seemed like Kim Jong Un was self-selecting people,” said Cho, who studies South Korean music videos and the digital culture of K-pop fandom.

Cho said Kim “owned up to the fact that he clearly follows Korean popular culture.”

She added it is likely Kim made the key decision to invite members of Red Velvet, one of the most popular K-pop girl groups under the management of leading firm SM Entertainment.

“There’s a lot of interest as to why Kim Jong Un is interested in Korean popular culture, maybe trying to learn the cultural technology that the Korean creative industry offers,” Cho said. “That’s kind of intriguing.”

Analysts who study the North Korean economy have consistently noted market forces play an increasingly important role in the lives of ordinary North Koreans.

Kim has vowed to put his country on a more peaceful and prosperous path.

During his recent visit to China, Kim made a stopover at China’s technology hub Zhongguancun, known as China’s Silicon Valley.

While it is easy to dismiss the South Korean pop performance as a petty distraction from the main challenge of North Korea denuclearization, culture, and the performing arts in particular, are taken seriously by the ruling Kim family, said Inkyu Kang, an associate professor of digital journalism at Penn State University.

Former leader Kim Jong Il “was an avid music lover, but he firmly believed that music must serve politics,” Kang said. “‘Music without politics is like a flower without scent, and politics without music is like politics without heart,’ he said.”

Following the concert, North Korea did not air footage of the groups’ performance but acknowledged the South Korean visit.

Kim’s favorable review of the K-pop musicians is not without irony.

North Korean state media has consistently condemned foreign “bourgeois” culture, a likely reference to the spread of South Korean soap operas and Hollywood films that defectors say are secretly watched in the country.

Just days before the concert, a group of North Korean teenagers were sentenced for listening and dancing to K-pop songs and distributing the music to others on a flash drive.

But Kim’s affinity for South Korean music does not surprise Kang.

“Culturally, the two Koreas have a lot in common. Koreans in both the North and the South had developed common emotional traits for thousands of years,” Kang said. “Considering the long history of shared experiences, the division came very recently — and abruptly — in the mid-20th century.”

It may be too early to tell whether an emerging North Korean endorsement of South Korean contemporary culture will translate into a changing tide in North Korean politics, or the economy,

K-pop has been successful in converting music listeners into consumers of South Korean products globally, including in the United States, said Sherri Ter Molen, a faculty member at DePaul University’s College of Communication.

They also “tend to take greater interests in Korean culture, history and society,” she said.

Kang, who teaches television at Penn State, said consumer exposure to South Korean dramas, for example, was equated to the purchase of South Korean consumer electronics, fashion and “lifestyle” in China, a major market for the South’s multibillion-dollar entertainment industry.

“Anything made in Korea, or rather Korea itself, started to connote cool and fashionable,” Kang said.

Kim might have taken notice.

Immediately after the South Korean concert, Kim spoke with Red Velvet band members and said he had “adjusted his schedule” to meet the group.

The North Korean leader is to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27, and plans to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump in May or June.

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