William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."
K-pop tunes and flashy dance moves are many things to many people. High art to some; a lunge to mute for others. For the rest, a potent sign of the economic potential of South Korea's cultural-industrial complex.
Could K-pop boyband BTS also be an unlikely weapon against North Korea? One that uber-hawks in Washington like John Bolton failed to imagine?
In a tirade unhinged even by Pyongyang standards, Kim Jong Un railed against the "attire, hairstyles, speeches" and "behaviors" of BTS, girlband Blackpink and their peers, according to a New York Times story on June 10. Add them to mullet hairstyles, skinny jeans, body piercings and other "vicious cancers" that he says could "crumble" the Kim Dynasty "like a damp wall."
Kim's paranoia about cultural "invasion" makes Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's worries about "Back in the USSR" seem quaint.
Telling, too. Kim had been remarkably quiet since his own flirtation with Donald Trump. It involved two engagements -- one in Singapore, one in Hanoi -- and a brief encore at the Demilitarized Zone separating the Korean Peninsula in 2019.
Since Trump's first bizarre summit with Kim in June 2018, pundits debated who duped who. Really, they played each other. Trump, in his desperation for a Nobel Peace Prize, elevated Kim onto the world stage -- even swapping love letters. Kim, in return, chilled out a bit for the remainder of the Donald's presidency.
Kim's K-pop tirade demonstrates not just that the moment has passed, just as Trump national security adviser Bolton warned. It suggests Kim feels on-the-run at home as young North Koreans learn how brutal their lives are relative to Asian peers. And willing to take bigger risks to gain access to outside influences that challenge Kim's narratives.
"It is doubtful he can stem the tide and he risks alienating the young by this effort to intimidate and bolster the snitch state," says Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at Temple University. "And given his own history cavorting with Disney characters and miniskirt girls, the hypocrisy won't go unnoticed."
When Kim took over the family business in 2011, he thought his biggest threats were America's nuclear weapons, Japanese coastguard ships and U.N. sanctions. Turns out, it is Generation Z within his own borders.
As Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch, puts it: "How can K-pop be a national security threat? Because it reminds the North Korean people how limited their life is under the Kim dictatorship in comparison with their compatriots in South Korea."
Kim's stress levels are rising alongside tensions at home. The North's economy is flatlining along with much of the rest of a COVID-19 battered world. In addition to weak global growth, Kim's inner circle is finding it harder than ever to make an end-run around U.N. sanctions.
Global-positioning systems make it hard to smuggle in the Mercedes-Benz cars, electronics, cases of Hennessy cognac and other perks the Kim family uses to reward the loyalty of party bigwigs and generals. The increased use of cryptocurrencies make Pyongyang's counterfeit $100 bills business less lucrative.
By his own admission in August 2020, Kim's efforts to create a "great socialist country" with a bold five-year economic reform plan flopped. Living standards, already arguably the worst in the world, were hit by a triple whammy of the pandemic, massive floods and U.N. sanctions related to Kim's nuclear program.
China, meantime, is no longer the reliable benefactor it used to be. With options dwindling, Kim made a mistake no learned world leader ever should: he trusted Trump. The former U.S. president conned Kim into believing he was building a Trump Dynasty to rival the Kim family's reign. That arrangement, Kim seemed to bet, would greatly enrich his regime.
Now Kim is more preoccupied by smugglers in the private sector than those supporting his regime. Black marketeers trafficking in K-pop paraphernalia are now public enemy No. 1.
Yet technology is puncturing the myth of Kim omnipotence. In time's past, DVDs containing music or wildly popular Korean dramas were difficult to hide. Tiny USB flash drives make censorship infinitely harder. So do creative efforts to tap into internet connections.
One particular target: episodes of the TV rom-com "Crash Landing on You," which depicts efforts to hide a taboo North-South relationship. You would think Kim, a millennial himself, might be young enough to realize he is fighting the last war.
The twentysomethings of Generation Z came of age when millions died amid a terrible late 1990s famine. Does Kim really think the usual spin that South Koreans are starving, thieving beggars will work when K-pop videos, K-dramas and movies filtering into the North tell a wildly different story?
"If this is the best he can come up with," Kingston says, "the future of his regime looks bleak and that damp wall won't be getting any drier."
Kim's K-pop putsch does not just make him seem unwoke, but delusional. The real threat to his power can be summed up, ironically, by the name of the latest BTS hit making the rounds on USB drives: "Butter." If the Kim Dynasty focused more on that and less on guns, as Econ. 101 teaches, he might have an easier time charting among Gen Z.