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The Axis of Vaudeville: Images of North Korea in South Korean Pop Culture

Spy Lee (Jang Jin, 1999) - A North Korean spy aims to steal a superpig
Spy Lee (Jang Jin, 1999) – A North Korean spy aims to steal a superpig

Elizabeth Grace reports on Dr Stephen Epstein’s talk at Cambridge earlier this week

We are all too familiar with the Western media’s portrayal of North Korea as a rogue communist state, complete with an evil dictator whose regime is seen as an unrepentant member of the “axis of evil.” Although these one-sided portrayals are increasingly the subject of criticism from Western scholars of Korean history, there has been little work in the West on the nature of South Korean representations of the North in cultural productions. Through his thorough and enlightening examination of the evolving image of the DPRK in South Korean popular culture over the past decade, Dr Stephen Epstein poses a crucial question: is the South Korean imagination growing to encompass what he terms, “an inclusive but heterogeneous identity that accepts both parts of the divided nation?”

Love of North and South (남남북녀) (Jeong Cho-sin, 2003)
Love of North and South (남남북녀) (Jeong Cho-sin, 2003) Under the soft exterior…

To answer this question, Dr Epstein considered a wide range of sites where the South Korean imagination is expressed, ranging from advertisement campaigns and music to the frequently comical images of North Korean spies in South Korean popular cinema. Although he acknowledges a downturn in relations with the North since Lee Myung Bak’s inauguration, Dr Epstein notes that several key changes in South Korean demographics, such as increased labour migration and a rise in international marriages, as well as a decade of the Sunshine Policy, have had a considerable effect on southern representations of North Korea. Although prior to 1998 the DPRK was represented as a one-dimensional object of fear or disdain whose citizens were all villains brainwashed by an evil state, these negative, stereotypical portrayals have given way to a range of lighter images often produced through comedy or farce. In particular, Dr Epstein’s use of the liminal space of the DMZ as a fruitful site for artistic manipulation is effective in demonstrating just how far the South has come. The light-hearted depiction of the DMZ in music videos and film are part of a wider trend in South Korean popular culture, which leads Dr Epstein to suggest that freer representations of the North form part of a coping strategy that allows the DPRK to be seen as simply another country instead of as “an evil portion of the South Korean Self.”

The talk was both informative and entertaining, and as well as making us open our eyes to the images that surround us in popular culture, Dr Epstein left the audience with an interesting conundrum. If North Korea does become “just another country” in the psyche of the South, then what does this mean for Korean unity? What has “Korea” become in the southern imagination? As we surveyed the pained expression on the face of a North Korean official as he watched South Korean boy-band Shinhwa’s 2003 performance at the “Concert for Unification” (t’ongil ŭmakhoe) in Pyongyang (below), we realized that Dr Epstein was making an excellent point; perhaps the problem is not whether the South can ever fully accept North Korean identity, but rather, will the North ever be able to accept the South?

Shinhwa in Pyongyang

Dr Epstein spoke at the Cambridge Faculty of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies on 2 November. He will be talking at SOAS today, 6 November. The full version of his talk is available at The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 10-2-09, March 7, 2009

One thought on “The Axis of Vaudeville: Images of North Korea in South Korean Pop Culture

  1. Even as a fan of Shinhwa i find that clip toe-curlingly embarassing! The song choice was poor – they should have picked a ballad rather than a dance number and to perform to a silent audience like that must have been a painful experience. Judging by the looks on the officials faces though, I think they felt about the performance the same way as I did when being made to watch ‘The Mighty Boosh’.
    Shinhwa performed their big hit of the time, something the promoters probably decided and most likely based on how they would showcase as they would normally do to South Koreans rather than the North Koreans. If any North Korean had shown appreciation for it they would have been in a lot of trouble – particularly with cameras on them.

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