TITLE

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

AUTHOR(S)
Epstein, Stephen
PUB. DATE
March 2009
SOURCE
Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus;3/9/2009, Issue 10, p3
SOURCE TYPE
Periodical
DOC. TYPE
Article
ABSTRACT
This paper examines how South Korean understanding of what it means to be--or to have been--a citizen of the DPRK has evolved during the last decade. How does South Korean popular culture reflect that evolution and, in turn, shape ongoing transformations in that understanding? These questions have significant policy implications and take on a heightened salience given the recent deterioration in relations that has taken place under the Lee Myung Bak administration: is the South Korean imagination being enlarged to make room for an inclusive but heterogeneous identity that accepts both parts of the divided nation? Or, conversely, is a hardening of mental boundaries inscribing cultural/social difference in tandem with the previous decade's (anything but linear) progress in political/economic rapprochement? In examining these questions, I sample key discursive sites where the South Korean imaginary expresses itself, including music, advertising, television comedy programs, film and literature. Certainly, as widely noted, policies of engagement have led to noteworthy changes in the South's images of North Korea. Prior to Kim Dae Jung's presidency, South Korean popular representations of the North were one-dimensional, depicting it generally as a demonized object of fear or contempt. North Korean characters were almost inevitably presented as spies or terrorists--cardboard caricatures of evil incarnate, or, at best, brainwashed automatons, victims of the state. Recent years have added, if not finely nuanced representations, at least a broader array of hues to the palette from which depictions of the North are drawn. In the discussion I highlight significant but less noted developments. I concentrate on an important but little noticed trend in the South's imagining of North Korea since the turn of the millennium. Dealing with the DPRK is of course serious business, and its nuclear program and chronic food shortages dominate media images of the country outside of the Korean peninsula. In the last decade, however, South Korean cultural productions have often treated the North in modes that draw on comedy, irony or farce in preference to more straightforward, solemn readings. This partially reflects a broader post-modern turn in Korean popular culture, but one might hypothesize that the ironic mode has also become a strategy for dealing with a growing sense of heterogeneity on the Korean peninsula. If North Korea is no longer viewed as an evil portion of the South Korean Self, but rather simply another country (albeit with a special relationship to South Korea), the South Korean imaginary becomes freer to treat these differences as humorous rather than threatening.
ACCESSION #
37197537

 

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