As a girl, Ryu Hee-Jin was brought up to perform patriotic songs praising the iron will, courage and compassion of North Korea’s leader at the time, Kim Jong Il.
Then she heard American and South Korean pop music. “When you listen to North Korean music, you have no emotions,” she said. “But when you listen to American or South Korean music, it literally gives you the chills. The lyrics are so fresh, so relatable. When kids listen to this music, their facial expressions just change.”
Western music once helped tear a hole in the Iron Curtain. Now, there is evidence that South Korean K-pop is playing a similar role in subtly undermining the propaganda of the North Korean regime, with rising numbers of defectors citing music as one factor in their disillusionment with their government, according to Lee Kwang-Baek, president of South Korea’s Unification Media Group (UMG). A survey of 200 recent defectors by UMG released in June found that more than 90 percent had watched foreign movies, TV and music in North Korea.
Ryu is one of many defectors who say K-pop and Western popular music opened their eyes, convincing them that North Korea was not the paradise it was made out to be and that their best prospects lay abroad. “We were always taught that Americans were wolves and South Koreans were their puppets,” she said, “but when you listen to their art, you’ve just got to acknowledge them.”
In 2015, at 23, she defected to the South. These days, Ryu is studying for a business degree but still dreams of breaking into K-pop or – better yet – Hollywood.
“It’s so incredible how far I have come,” she said. “South Korean music really played a central role in guiding me through this journey.”