How the USB Taught North Korea to Love K-Pop

By Jeremy Hsu | April 6, 2018 4:13 pm
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets four members of the K-pop group Red Velvet and other South Korean music artists. Credit: KCNA

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets four members of the K-pop group Red Velvet and other South Korean music artists. Credit: KCNA

A seemingly cheap and ordinary technology may have paved the way for a cultural exchange breakthrough that saw South Korean K-pop idols receive an unprecedented welcome from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

It was not the first time that democratic South Korea has sent music acts to North Korea as part of diplomatic overtures to the authoritarian regime. In 1999, two pioneering K-pop groups, including the girl group Fin.K.L. and the boy band Sechskies, performed in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. In 2003, a similar K-pop outreach concert featuring the K-pop boy band Shinhwa and the girl group Baby V.O.X. met with a fairly lukewarm reception from a blank-faced North Korean crowd.

But this year’s K-pop delegation received a standing ovation from a North Korean audience that included Kim Jong Un, whose presence at the April 1 concert marked the first time a North Korean leader has ever attended a South Korean performance in Pyongyang.

For much of its existence, North Korea has closed itself off to the outside world through its militarized borders and government censorship efforts that have included arbitrary severe punishment for people caught possessing banned foreign material such as South Korean TV dramas or K-pop music.

One factor that could explain some of the difference in reception between the 2003 visit and the 2018 K-pop concert success in Pyongyang is a technological shift that has swept through North Korea. It’s not based on any technology that most people would consider extraordinary, and yet it has probably had a profound impact on North Korea’s relatively isolated society where the government tries to control all sources of information accessible through TV, radio or the country’s limited Internet service.

Sneaky Viewing with USBs

The recent technological shift in question has been the growing availability of cheap USB flash drives—also known as USB sticks or thumb drives—over the past 15 years. Flash drives represent small storage drives that can hold digital files and plug into a variety of computers, mobile devices and TVs. That has made them the ideal technology for smuggling foreign media content, including South Korean TV shows and K-pop music videos, into North Korea.

Before flash drives became more widely available, North Koreans relied heavily on DVDs to view illegal movies, TV shows and other content smuggled into North Korea from China, according to North Korean defectors interviewed in a 2012 report by the global research consultancy InterMedia. But North Korean authorities attempted to crackdown by selectively cutting off electricity to certain neighborhoods and seeing if any households had illegal DVDs stuck inside the DVD players.

By comparison, North Koreans can easily unplug flash drives from TVs or mobile devices and hide the devices if needed. That consideration helped push the growing popularity of USB flash drives. One male North Korean who left the country in 2013 recalled having used USB flash drives since 2003, according to an interview included in a more recent 2017 report by InterMedia.

“As the memory capacity grew, I used a USB with a memory of 32 gigabytes and also used an external hard drive,” he said. “Because a USB and an external hard drive can be stored separately, it is useful in avoiding crackdowns.”

Flash Drives Get Popular

Just as importantly, flash drives have generally become both more affordable and capable of holding much more storage space over time. In 2004, a typical USB flash drive capable of holding 128 megabytes of storage—less than 40 songs in the lowest quality mp3 format—cost anywhere between $30 and $85 in the United States.

North Koreans may have had access to cheaper USBs through the Chinese market, but it’s still a fairly steep price to pay in a country where the average income may be just $4 in USD per day. The combination of price and access to illegal material would have likely restricted consumption of illegal foreign content to the North Korean elites.

The North Korean audience that joined Kim Jong Un in watching a South Korean music performance in Pyongyang on April 1. Credit: KCNA

The North Korean audience that joined Kim Jong Un in watching a South Korean music performance in Pyongyang on April 1. Credit: KCNA

The cost and accessibility barriers have gone down dramatically since then. In 2018, U.S. customers can find USB flash drives for less than $10 in USD on Amazon that hold up to 32 gigabytes of digital files. That means each flash drive can hold the equivalent of thousands of songs in the mp3 format along with larger video files such as South Korean TV drama episodes or K-pop music videos.

Interviews with North Koreans illustrate the striking rise in USB flash drive availability. In 2010, just 26 percent of North Korean refugees, defectors and travelers reported having had access to flash drives, according to a survey by InterMedia and the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors.

By 2014, the number of North Koreans reporting access to flash drives had jumped to 81 percent. The price of buying a USB drive with between 30 to 40 episodes of a TV drama had dropped to just 5,000 won (less than $5 in USD).

Made in China Makes a Difference

Another key to making flash drives popular in North Korea has been Chinese-made devices with USB ports that allow North Koreans to plug and play their illegal viewing materials of choice. Prior to the wider availability of such USB-compatible devices, only a relatively small proportion of North Koreans who owned computers could use USB flash drives.

One notable development here has come from the wider availability of relatively inexpensive Chinese DVD players that have USB ports. In the 2017 report by InterMedia, 92 percent of North Korean respondents said they had watched foreign content using a DVD player. Furthermore, 86 percent of those with access to DVD players used the devices that had direct USB inputs.

A concept image of the K-pop girl group Red Velvet for the song "Red Flavor." Credit: SM Entertainment

A concept image of the K-pop girl group Red Velvet for the song “Red Flavor.” Credit: SM Entertainment

Another made-in-China device that has played an important role is a portable media device called a notel. Such notel devices have small screens and almost always have USB ports, which makes them even more ideal for sneaky viewing than the traditional DVD player and TV setup. About 48 percent of North Koreans who reported access to a DVD player said they also used a notel.

“After 2010, I would watch South Korean and Chinese movies once or twice a month by using a USB and sticking it into a Notel,” said a North Korean smuggler who left the country in 2014. “I would watch North Korean movies only when I had nothing else to watch.”

The notels have even proven handy devices for making copies of digital files between two USB flash drives. That would have made it even easier to spread foreign content such as K-pop songs or music videos.

Enabling K-pop Diplomacy

Since Kim Jong Un became North Korea’s head of state in 2011, the relatively young leader has shown some signs of potentially welcoming more modern cultural trends as seen in South Korea’s modern high-tech society. Such moves may partly reflect how the USB revolution has enabled the spread of K-pop and other foreign cultural products in North Korea despite the government’s censorship efforts.

But the recent Pyongyang concert featuring a number of popular South Korean music artists and K-pop idols seems to have broken new ground in terms of North Korea openly acknowledging the trend. Kim demonstrated an apparent enthusiasm for the South Korean music acts that went beyond merely attending the conference, shaking hands with the South Korean performers and taking a group photo.

For example, Kim specifically mentioned “adjusting my schedule” so that he could see the K-pop girl group called Red Velvet, one of the most popular K-pop acts in South Korea and among international fans. The South Korean delegation also included Seohyun, a member of the famed K-pop group Girls’ Generation.

After the concert, the North Korean state media agency KCNA reported that Kim was “deeply moved to see our people sincerely acclaiming the performance, deepening the understanding of the popular art of the south side.”

The latest success for K-pop outreach came at a time when South Korean president Moon Jae-in and his liberal Democratic Party have been ramping up diplomacy with the nuclear-armed regime of North Korea. After Korea was divided into two countries at the end of World War II, North Korea invaded its southern neighbor on June 25, 1950. The Korean War fighting eventually ceased after an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, but the war itself never officially ended.

It would be a mistake to say that USB flash drives alone will bring lasting peace to the Korean peninsula. But it’s still remarkable to consider how such a simple technology continues to quietly make a difference in one of the world’s most repressive and isolated countries.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts
  • Uncle Al

    I maintain every faith and expectation that the Un-and-only’s Lilliputian twig and berries will further the daily struggle and hasten to join shock brigades of exemplary labor to achieve complete satisfaction.

    • OWilson

      I just wish our MSM would treat the U.S. President and his family, with the same deference and uncritical acclaim they reserve for the “gregarious grin friendliness and forthcoming and daring responses of Kim”, and his beatitiful wife and sister.

      Not to mention their love affair with Castro who “dominated his country with strength and symbolism from the day he triumphantly entered Havana on Jan. 8, 1959” :)

      • Mike Richardson

        If Trump was treated with the “deference and uncritical acclaim” you describe, we’d be living in a society more like North Korea’s. I think I prefer we not take that path, though you don’t seem to mind it if the object of an adoring and uncritical press is a right-wing authoritarian wannabe.

        As for “mad” and ” mentally unfit, ” I’d say the man’s not helping his case with unhinged and untruthful rants on Twitter, as well as his ill-advised attempt at a trade war with China and attacks on American businesses he personally dislikes (run by businessmen who haven’t repeatedly declared bankruptcy, failed in numerous enterprises, and lost more money than they could have made just leaving it in investments — actually successful businessmen, in other words). But he’s apparently got at least a few admirers who display the same intellectual, personality, and moral characteristics. Sad!

        • OWilson

          The “deference” to the tin pot murderering dictators I was talking about came from CNN the New York Times, Lol!

          As for your “failures”, I would suggest you read up on your admired Elon Musk, who failed his way to success.

          (not to mention losers Hillary, Biden, Bernie, Heinz-Kerry) Lol!

          “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again” – The secret of success!

          Ever hear of that?

        • Uncle Al

          Trump savaged competitors in the construction business. That is his proven successful business style. Competitors’ complete bankruptcy was Trump’s measure of success. Trump has been at the short end about four times.

          If Thomas Jefferson had but one man to invite to dinner, it would be Trump. Those who oppose Trump have found and will find themselves lemmings running toward their fall.

          Unlike Southern Baptists, don’t believe your own propaganda.

          • Mike Richardson

            Savaged the competitors with techniques like not installing sprinklers in Trump Tower, to save on costs — with tragic consequences this week. No, valuing profit over human life isn’t just savage; it’s sociopathic.

            Jefferson helped lead a revolution against a petty tyrant who considered opposition to himself and checks on his power an “attack” on the state. He would not have admired, much less dined with, Donald Trump. Those who have worked with the Trump campaign are already falling, as his lawyer and those who’ve already been indicted or pled guilty have discovered.

            I’m glad you brought up propaganda. Propaganda is something you’ve practiced right here. I guess North Korea isn’t the only place folks engage in propaganda, though there it’s not optional. That just makes it all the more repugnant to see such sycophantic behavior willing promoted in this country.

          • OWilson

            The usual leftist moral equivalency between communist discatorships and the United States of America, we have come to expect.

            We all do it, goes the dogma, but we do it worse!

            And, of course, not one negative word for third world, tin pot dictator. Kim Il Un.

            My point well made!

          • Mike Richardson

            The usual mindless right wing over generalizations I have come to expect, and not one word addressing the points I made. If you fawn over an immoral person with his own autocratic tendencies the way North Koreans fawn over their dictator (yes, Kim is far worse — I guess I figured that was obvious except to the most simple-minded who need to have self evident facts repeated for them), then there’s a comparison to be made — between expressed admiration for survival, and the more deplorable adulation voluntarily given based on a shared lack of values. :)

          • OWilson

            Typical socialist response! :)

            You have an “expressed admiration for (Kim Il Un’s) survival”?

            I wish he were dead! :)

            So yes, we do lack shared vaues!

            “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure (Fidel Castro) on the people and world around him”. – Barack Hossein Obama

          • Mike Richardson

            No, I don’t have admiration for Kim, but of course there’s no limit to how low you’ll go in dishonestly twisting my words. I was referring to how the North Korean citizens have no choice but to lavish praise on their dictator, so that they and their families can survive the repressive regime. They have no choice, but you and Al do have a choice, yet still fawn over Trump in much the same way. That free decision to praise the immoral, and to willfully misrepresent the position of others, does indeed show that you don’t share my values, or the values of most decent human beings.

          • OWilson

            Your words are complete and intact above and I can’t “twist” them! :)

            You say, and I quote:

            “North Korean citizens have no choice but to lavish praise on their dictator, so that they and their families can survive the repressive regime.”

            That is the language of communists and slaves.

            More proof that we

          • Mike Richardson

            They are, in many cases, indoctrinated and they live in conditions comparable to slavery. Those that do think for themselves usually keep their thoughts to themselves, because the alternative is imprisonment or death. But since you are apparently a man who believes his values and will to power make him better than others, I suggest you put your beliefs to the test. Travel to North Korea, stand in front of Kim’s palace, and shout out what you really think of him. Surely you’ll be more impressive than K-pop, and maybe you’ll even inspire a revolution. Show them the way. I dare you.

          • OWilson

            Still lonely Mikey? Your new troll pals disappear, as usual?

            I gave you the last word and you gave me a dare? :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Apparently, you didn’t, which is no surprise. No leading question or any other excuse this time, just your overwhelming need to respond, ironically calling others trolls. A troll would be someone who constantly puts down on others, including those suffering in a dictatorship, then pretends to be magnanimous in allowing the last word, but always with a ready excuse to rescind the offer. I expect you’ll find a reason to respond here, too, just as I expect you’ll never set foot in North Korea to practice those “principles” you’ve bragged about from the anonymous safety of a computer in another country.

          • OWilson

            I take it then, that you really didn’t want my response to your explicit “dare”?

            Just trolling, right?



Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.


See More

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar