The DIY Clubs of North Korea

Abandoned buildings and contraband K-pop in the Hermit Kingdom.

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21 January 2015, 5:00am

Despite enormous advances in global Internet connectivity over the past decade, North Korea has remained a near-total mystery to both the Western world and their close neighbours. What are North Korean restaurants like? Have North Korean movies been well-received within the country? Do North Koreans go clubbing? Thanks to Delaware-based expat publication NK News, we can finally answer the latter question. 

Once a week, NK News picks a reader-submitted question to ask a North Korean. Most recently, defector Je Son Le was asked how North Koreans spend their free time and vacation days. Aside from the mandatory holiday traditions like dress codes and early morning flower laying (a necessity for any tyrannical regime), Je Son Le revealed shocking details about music and partying in the Hermit Kingdom.


In 2012, thousands of North Korean troops and students took to the streets of Pyongyang to dance in celebration of Kim Jong Un's appointment as Marshal. Photo via Huff Po/Associated Press.

Let's get straight to the point: No, there are no clubs in Pyongyang or anywhere else in the country. North Korea is a place where the local Internet has been built to blind its users to international news. It is a place where utmost devotion to the regime is the only accepted norm. It is a place where even the music is built to promote government interests (all-female ensemble Moranbong Music Band is one such popular propaganda tool). All of this should come as no surprise given the North Korean government's attitude towards the Western world and their harsh penalties for disobedience.


State propaganda tool Morongong Music Band perform "Let's Learn."

Like most lovers of music, laws against clubbing and expression do little to prevent the North Korean populace from letting loose on their days off. "No matter whether you're living in North Korea, South Korea or United States, appreciation for arts, sports, affection and friendship exist in every country people live in," Je Son Le tells NK News.

The result of harsh government restrictions is an underground network of DIY clubs where spirits are high and the stakes are even higher. Instead of a main street nightclub, empty houses become makeshift homes of revelry. Instead of government-approved songs, banned K-pop flows through speakers. Special care is taken to ensure that the sound of music does not escape from the house. 

"Enjoying anything from South Korea is illegal in North Korea," Je Son explains. "In the case of a sudden police raid, if we fail to hide the tape or CD in advance, it would be used as an evidence against us." Being caught with prohibited material can lead to jail time, forced labor, or worse. Remember, this is a country where you can be executed for watching South Korean TV shows.


Students attending classes at the Western-funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Photo via BBC.

Smuggled K-pop CDs are difficult to play in a country where public access to electricity is not the norm, so students will often make creative use of oil-powered generators. Rather than using them to run industrial equipment, students instead power stereos and amplifiers. Unfortunately, this creates just as many problems as it solves. Not only are generators are heavy and difficult to lug around, they're also noisy and increase the risk of being heard by scrutinous authorities. 

Here, people borrow a bait and switch strategy from North Korea's illicit DVD industry. In order to play illegal South Korean movies in their homes, many families will make use of a dual-input DVD player called a Notetell. By loading a North Korean DVD in the device's tray while a South Korean film plays from a USB drive, citizens are able to produce evidence that they were simply watching a North Korean film in the event that they're caught. The incriminating USB stick will be hidden or thrown away. The students planning a night of dancing with their friends will often opt for an even more low-tech solution: guitars.

As Je Son Le points out, guitars leave no trail of evidence. They're light, easy to procure, and--in the event that outsiders are nearby--allow the students to quickly switch to traditional, legal North Korean songs. The music they play is fast, upbeat, and unlike your stoner friend's clumsy cover of "Wonderwall," quite skillful. Je Son Le uploaded a supremely lovely example of one such song to YouTube.

Unlike their neighbours to the south, North Korean youth are not enjoying the increased popularity of electronic music or watching CL perform with Diplo on award shows. The story told by Je Son Le is one of strife, secrets, and caution. It illustrates all too clearly the extreme lengths that the Kims (and shadow figures) go to in order to control the population. As is the case with many forms of expression in North Korea, enjoying music is a game of cat and mouse; for every brutal action, there is an equal and ingenious reaction. Faced with the decision between compliance and survival or K-pop and death, the government-resistive youth of North Korea forge their own path.

Ziad Ramley is on Twitter: @ZiadRamley