Life Beyond Kim: The Spice Girl Propagandist of North Korea
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because art can be power too.
This OZY Encore was first published in 2018.
In the closed-off Communist dictatorship of North Korea, life revolves around one man: Kim Jong Un. But with a possible high-stakes summit looming between the nuclear-armed hermit kingdom and the United States, OZY is taking a look at the key figures around the third-generation autocrat. This is Life Beyond Kim.
The North Korean starlet bops around in a garment factory, strawberry overalls over her bubblegum tee and cap. A hectic synth beat propels the brunette described as “the well-bred horse maiden” for her dedication to her work, in lines that wed propaganda to pop culture like no country but the Hermit Kingdom can. “In the era of creation born of the labor party, the cherished new name bestowed upon [my] youth,” the singer croons in Korean, before exalting “the great general … my life to extol his name.” The three-minute song celebrating factory work has garnered nearly 2 million YouTube views. But for a fluffy pop music video, its caption is particularly jarring: “SHE’S ALIVE! WELCOME BACK! Hyon Song Wol.”
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of Hyon’s death were an exaggeration. The vocalist for the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, a pop group that found fame in the early 2000s, was reported to have been executed in August 2013. She appears to have met Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un when they were teenagers and they dated for a time. Rumors swirled about a sex scandal that prompted the firing squad.
Under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, popular culture is something that has revived, and [Hyon has] been central to that revival.
Keith Howard, a fellow at the National Humanities Center
When she reappeared on North Korean television in May 2014, she wasn’t just alive — she was hobnobbing with the elite, sitting with political leadership. While leading the Moranbong band, an all-female North Korean answer to the Spice Girls, Hyon was elevated last year to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Kim’s powerful policymaking arm that resembles an American president’s cabinet.
Michael Madden, an expert on the regime and publisher of the website North Korea Leadership Watch, describes her as a “cultural official,” with the name recognition of a Carrie Underwood or Lana Del Rey in American culture. That is, if Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” was about taking a baseball bat to America’s enemies. Culture in North Korea is intertwined with the state. “The Song of General Kim Il Sung” march is still played regularly today and helped lead to the cult of personality around North Korea’s “Eternal President.” In the second generation of leadership, under Kim Jong Il, “songs were functioning essentially as newspaper editorials,” says Keith Howard, a fellow at the National Humanities Center who is completing a monograph on the music and dance of North Korea.
Hyon’s aesthetic now reflects her more powerful role. When she appeared in South Korea in January to inspect facilities ahead of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, she wore a black winter coat and black fur scarf, her hair tied back. Today, the only part of her ensemble that’s still pink are her pursed lips. “She has considerable responsibility,” Howard says. “Sitting on the committee, yes, you’ve got power — but you’ve got to be careful how you use that power.”
Power in totalitarian North Korea derives from a singular 34-year-old leader, who is deploying it through more than generals and apparatchiks. “Under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, clearly popular culture is something that has revived, and [Hyon has] been central to that revival,” Howard says. Still, fortunes can change quickly, and Hyon’s history and star power might not be as welcome if Korean culture’s more conservative influences rise to the fore again.
Before Hyon and Pochonbo vanished from the public eye, the dancers had been accused of becoming too risqué. When she returned, this time with Moranbong, “the costumes were much more demure, a lot less makeup, the music was plainer,” Howard says. It’s all by communist design, he adds, “making sure the state is more important than the individual person or group.”
But Hyon has emerged as much more than a singing manifesto. She fits a pattern in which Kim has gradually brought younger North Koreans into senior positions in the public eye, Madden says. (The Washington Post recently pegged her age at 35, although other reports have her in her early 40s.) The up-and-comers tend to be in areas Kim can directly control, such as the provincial and lower governments, the internal security service and cultural affairs. It hearkens back to what his father and grandfather did during the mid-1970s Three Revolutions Team Movement, sending a new generation of leaders into factories and farms to undermine older managers — and build Kim Jong Il’s power base.
The choice to have Hyon front and center in Olympic preparations bewildered some South Koreans, considering her relative lack of international political experience. “It’s a Confucian value to a certain point … emphasizing age and experience over recalcitrant youth,” Madden says. “There are always people, especially South Korean officials and malcontents, bitching about young people in North Korea.” To be fair, her work was mostly confined to paving the way for two performances by the 140-member Samjiyon Orchestra at the Winter Olympics, the first North Korean group performance in South Korea since 2002.
But as South Korean newspapers plastered the pop star’s face across front pages, speculating on everything from her meals to her handbag choices, Hyon’s next-generation presence was a message in itself. “What they’re trying to say,” Madden says, “is that North Korea isn’t going anywhere.”